Freaks of Nature

Sassafras leaves
An unusual five-lobed Sassafras leaf

© Steven Foster

In 2009 Holiday Island resident and Eureka Springs Independent reader, Leah Nelson, noticed an extraordinary leaf on a sidewalk in Rogers, Arkansas—a giant sycamore leaf that was 16 ½ inches wide, and 13 ½ in. long, more than twice the normal size. This fall at Black Bass Lake I found a small group of Sassafras trees with leaves that were far from normal. Usually Sassafras has three types of leaves— simple oval leaves, mitten-shaped leaves (with one prominent lobe), and three-lobed leaves. Sassafras leaves are “always” longer than wide. On these trees, a large percentage of leaves were 5-7-lobed, and up to three times as wide as long.  Back in the early 80s I wrote about an Ozark Witch Hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) plant that I found that was brilliant scarlet red. It’s usually yellow to orange-tinged. A plant breeder in up-state New York saw my article and traveled to the Ozarks just to see the plant. He collected it, propagated it and offered it to his customers. These are examples of what horticultural breeders refer to as “sports”—variations from a plant’s “normal” morphological features. It’s all part of the package that nature delivers as endless variation.

It is this endless variation that horticulturists exploit to bring unusual or new plants to gardens. The famous plant breeder, Luther Burbank (1849-1926), gave us the giant Idaho potato (the Russett-Burbank potato). Before that one could hold a handful of potatos. Inspired by Charles Darwin’s 1868 book The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, Burbank  planted dozens of acres of daisies, then walked up and down the rows, selecting a handful of “sports” from which to collect seed for propagation. The rest of the field was plowed under. From those selections the Shasta daisy was born. These types of variations usually are not described in field guides. They are freaks of nature, genetic twists of fate, or perhaps some inexplicable response to the environment. Who knows! We just hope that when we find such mutations that they are not induced by man-made chemicals unleashed to the air, soil, and water or from genetically modified organisms.  Let Nature work her own wonders.

Osage Orange

A Forgotten Native Tree—The Osage Orange

By Steven Foster

The Osage Orange Maclura pomifera is one of the most curious small trees of the Ozarks. The fruit is the most unusual part—a large, green, grapefruit-like pome with outer texture that looks like like brain tissue. As one of the largest fruits of any woody plant in the United States, it is a shame it is worthless as food (or anything else).

Maclura commemorates William Maclure, an American geologist living from 1763 to 1840. Common names are many and include the familiar Osage Orange, Bois-d’Arc, bodec, hedge-orange, hedge-apple, horse-apple, and mockorange. With crowded zigzag branches armed with sharp stout spines an inch or more long, a thicket of this small tree was impenetrable. It is now widespread outside of what is thought to be its narrow native range from Arkansas to Texas because the Osage Orange is the true American hedge. Before wire fences were popular, it was extensively planted along fence rows. Hedges were planted in single or double rows. Seedlings were set about nine inches to a foot apart, resulting in a thick and formidable natural barrier.

The exceedingly hard, coarse-grained, heavy, bright orange wood is rarely used today. Perhaps the most unique feature of the wood is its excellent flexibility and elasticity coupled with its strength.  In an 1810 account of his explorations of the interior of the U.S., Bradbury found two Osage Orange trees growing in the garden of Pierre Chouteau, one of the first settlers in St. Louis. The trees were introduced to the settlement by Osage Indians, hence the common name of the tree. The Osage highly prized the wood for war clubs and especially bows. It was prized so highly that a bow made from the wood was worth a horse and blanket in trade. Though the plant grew outside of the Pawnee and Omaha-Ponca’s territories, both tribes prized the wood for bows, and obtained it from Indians in the southern part of Oklahoma. Today the tree simply suffers from little appreciation, thought of as a gangly undesirable weed tree. One person’s weed tree is another’s valuable natural resource. The Osage Orange can be either one.

Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper, October 18, 2012