Nature Bulletin No. 207-A November 20, 1965
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
Ever since primitive man decided that it was easier to raise his own
meat than to go out and hunt wild game, there have been herdsmen
and farmers who have had to build fences. Fence building and fence
repairing, whether they be stone walls, living thorn hedges, rail fences,
barbed wire or electric fences, are never-ending jobs for farmers.
About the time young Abraham Lincoln was splitting oak and walnut
logs into rails for "worm" fences, middle western farmers began to
hear of a small thorny tree, native to the Arkansas River region, which
could be grown in dense hedges to enclose horses, cattle, sheep and
hogs. Because the Osage (Wazhazhe or "war people") Indians
inhabited that region, it was called the Osage Orange.
It is a medium-sized tree occasionally reaching 50 feet in height and
two feet in diameter, with glossy simple leaves about twice as long as
broad. The twigs are orange-brown in color and armed with many
straight stout sharp thorns about three-quarters of an inch long. The
large wrinkled orange-like green fruit, four or five inches in diameter,
as well as the leaves and twigs, contain a milky juice which is quite
bitter. These fruits, heavy and hard, are commonly known as "hedge
apples" and used by boys as missiles for mimic warfare and other
purposes. They are not edible. It is the only tree of its kind in the
world, although related distantly to the mulberries and figs. Silk
worms feed on its leaves as readily as on those of the mulberry. Some
of these trees have yellowish male flowers bearing pollen which is
carried by bees to other trees with greenish female flower-heads that
produce the " oranges" .
Osage orange grows well on many kinds of soil throughout most of the
United States. Sprouts from roots, or shoots grown from seed or
cuttings in nurseries, are planted in one or two rows several inches
apart where a hedge fence is wanted. These are trimmed once or twice
a year to form a dense hedge about 4 feet high and 2 feet wide.
Sometimes the "whips" or sprouts are planted on an angle to create an
inter-woven lattice-like living fence.
If farmers neglect the trimming, the hedges grow rapidly to become
havens for birds and other wildlife. However, the trees so produced are
valuable as posts for wire fences because osage orange is more durable
in the soil than any other wood and many such fences have lasted
more than 50 years without a single rotten post. Since they occupy and
shade too much valuable cropland, most such overgrown hedges have
been removed in recent years.
The wood, exceedingly heavy, hard and strong, shrinks but little as it
dries and was formerly used to make the felloes and hubs of wagon
wheels. A yellow dye can be extracted from the bright orange wood
and roots for tanning and coloring leather. The Osage Indians used the
wood to make war clubs and bows, and the tree was called bois d'arc
(wood of the bow) by the early French explorers. Without doubt, it is
the finest wood for bows in all the world. Archery fans scour the
country for osage orange trees large enough and straight enough for
bows. Perhaps one in a hundred, or a thousand, is suitable. It is
carefully sawed into staves which are varnished and seasoned for
several years before the wood is ready to be fashioned into a bow. In
1800 or thereabouts, historians mention that the Osage Indians valued
such a bow equal to a horse and a blanket.
Today, 150 years later, it is worth the same.
To return to the Nature Bulletins Click Here!
Update: June 2012