Written by Dr. Sarah Dooling
The names given to trees often indicate a long history of cultural and economic transformations of the land and people. Maclura pomifera is a tree valued for its strength and durability. Found from eastern Texas to Oklahoma and western Arkansas, the Osage orange tree was used by the Osage Indians for making bows used in fighting and hunting. They used the Osage orange wood to make bows – the wood was easy to bend and plenty strong to withstand constant use. French colonialists called this tree bois d’arc (meaning “wood of the bow”) and later arriving colonialists changed the name to bowdark.
The Osage Tribe (meaning “People of the Middle Waters”) historically dominated much of present-day Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family squatted on Osage lands and she wrote of encounters they had with Osage tribe members in her Little House on the Prairie books. Colonialists moving into Osage territory quickly understood the timber value of Osage orange trees and used its wood to make wagon wheels. The wood’s ability to resist rot and bend easily made the tree incredibly popular to plant and to harvest. The tree was often planted to mark borders between land allotted to colonial homesteaders, and soon became known as prairie hedge, hedge apple or horse apple.
The fruit of Osage orange trees is unusual: a fleshy, green sphere the size of a grapefruit that is not edible. The fruit’s surface is hairy and has a warty texture. A bitter, milky sap exudes from the fruit when opened that eventually turns black, often giving people rashes.
The great demand placed on the huge native stands of Osage orange growing in the bottomlands of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas resulted in the wholesale harvesting of these stands. As the railroad was built in the 19th century, the wood was used for railroad ties as the Osage tribe was removed from its lands and onto reservations in Kansas and Oklahoma. Homesteaders continued to build hedges with Osage orange trees. The tree was easily grown from seed, grew fast and provided a dense screen with the tree’s thick, thorny branches. As white settlers started to grow their prairie hedges, the Osage tree was planted along thousands of miles in Midwestern, eastern and southern US states. The tree was quick to adapt and can now be found growing (mostly in hedges) from the east coast to the Great Lakes down to the Gulf coast.
Maclura pomifera is a deciduous tree, growing up to 40 feet with many crooked, interwoven branches that form a dense, spreading crown. Native to East and Central Texas, the tree grows well in clay soils. The largest Bois d’arc in Texas is located in the Red River Valley in northeast Texas. Simple, alternate leaves turn yellow in the fall – and be careful of the thorns! The green fruit is actually an aggregate of many small seeds and is the easiest way to identify this tree. The species is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers occur on separate trees in late spring.
Osage orange trees are no longer used to build fencing. However, their presence on the landscape is a reminder of how the west was developed through displacement of First Nations people, the development of colonialists’ homesteads and the infrastructure that accompanied the transformation of the Midwest from subsistence to agricultural economies.