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.