The Osage Orange

By James Oaks

The Osage Orange (Maclura Pomifera) reminds me of an old cowboy. Many don’t consider it pretty. Few know of the hard times it’s seen.

It bends with the wind and can stand up to the the harshest weather conditions. Like the old cowboy, few people know or care about its history and one could hardly fathom the hard work it has done.

The Bois d ‘arc, hedge, hedge apple, monkey brain, and many other names it’s been given, isn’t a tree anyone would plant in their front yard or show off to their friends.

Hedge Apple
Hedge Apple

In fact, many people consider this tree a nuisance and would just as soon part with it altogether. But like that old cowboy, when you get to know it, the Bois d’arc has a very interesting past and can teach us a whole lot.

The tree has meant much to our past and much of what we know today might not have been possible without it.

In his book, “Wood Eternal,” Dr. Fred Tarpley tells a story about how the Early Spiro Indians controlled much of the land in where the Osage Orange grew. They became wealthy by selling its wood for bows.
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A good Osage Orange bow was back then worth a horse and a blanket. Next, after the white settlers came, they sought osage orange seeds to build windbreaks and hedges to protect their crops and help them manage their livestock.

This was before steel wire was widely available and before barbed wire made it to the prairie. When barbed wire came to the prairie, it would be hung on, you guessed it, rugged Bois d’arc fence posts.

Joplin Osage Orange Tree
Joplin Osage Orange Tree

By that time, there were thousands of miles of “hedge rows” throughout the lower 48 states. If you are ever near Commerce, Texas, you might stop in to their annual Bois d’arc Bash. Dr. Fred Tarpley co-founded the festival and the second largest Osage Orange in Texas lives there.

Like the old cowboy, the Bois d’arc seems to shrug off sickness and disease and few bugs pester the tree. The Bois d’arc has the highest BTU of any wood and burns the hottest, and botanists claim its wood is 2.5 times as hard as white oak.

Few animals eat its fruit; it’s too bitter and acidic. Only fox squirrels and horses like it.

Maybe that’s where the “horse apple” name came from?

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