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

Published by

Steven Foster

Describing her first visit with Steven Foster in 1977, Harvard University botanist, Dr. Shiu Ying Hu (1908-2012), wrote, “Our conversation reminded me of something that Confucius said two thousand years ago. ‘In any company of three persons, there must be one who can be my teacher’. . . I found in Steven Foster a teacher who could share a profound knowledge of economic botany, particularly in the cultivation and uses of herbs.” In 1974, at age 17, Steven Foster, began his career at the Sabbathday Lake, Maine, Shaker Community Herb Department —America's oldest herb business, dating to 1799. There he established three acres of production gardens and managed 1700 acres for the commercial harvest of botanicals. For forty-six years, Steven has photographed and researched herbs from the Amazon rainforest to the highlands of Vietnam. Foster has over 900 photo-illustrated articles published in a wide range of media. Steven also served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Botanical Council, and a Contributing Editor to the organization's journal, HerbalGram. Steven is the author, co-author and photographer of eighteen books, including the NEW 2014 Third Edition of A Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants: Eastern and Central North America (with James A. Duke), along with National Geographic’s Complete Guide to Medicinal Herbs (2010), and A Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine (2006, with Rebecca Johnson), awarded a 2007 New York Public Library “Best of Reference.” He is senior author of three other Peterson Field Guides, including A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs (with Dr. James A. Duke), 1st & 2nd editions, 1990, 2000; A Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs with Dr. Christopher Hobbs, (2002); and A Field Guide to Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants of North America (with Roger Caras, 1995). Other titles include Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West (with Prof. Yue Chongxi, 1992); Herbal Renaissance (1994); among others. Foster makes his home in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

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