Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Osage Orange
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.

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