Thursday, March 15, 2012

Planting Osage-Orange Trees

For my birthday one year, I gave myself the gift of wandering the farm with a photographer's eye, pausing to take pictures of scenes I tend to overlook in the ordinary rush of life. One of my stops was the Osage-orange tree grove just north of the house. It was late October, and the nubby, lime-colored fruit was falling from the trees. Being round, the fruit rolled easily into the natural depressions beneath the trees, forming ribbons of green winding through the grove.

The Osage-orange tree has many names--among them hedge-apple, bodark or bois-d'arc, and bowwood, with the Latin name Maclura pomifera. The uses of the tree may be found in the names it has been given. Native Americans, as well as today's serious bow-makers, found the wood especially valuable for making bows. Bois-d'arc comes from Louisiana French and translates literally as "bow wood." For people on the prairie, the primary reason for planting the trees was for fencing. I do not know who planted the hedge-apple grove on our farm. It has been a mature grove of trees since I was a child. What I suspect is that the trees were planted by my grandfather for posts to fence our pastures.

This summer a pasture of unplowed prairie was planted to wheat. The land was owned by my grandfather and tended by my father for his sister, who had inherited the land. During my childhood I had played in the pasture with my cousins, especially in the large sand hill plum thickets with their cattle paths and clearings which our imaginations transformed into castles and forts. Before the fencing was removed, I photographed the ancient posts that had been there all of my life, still as sturdy and free of rot as they had always been, and embellished with the patina of age. I do not know for certain that the wood was Osage-orange, but I know of no other wood that would have endured for so long.

In addition to cutting the wood for fence posts, settlers used the trees themselves as hedges. The growth pattern of the limbs is unruly and abundant, and while branches are young and tender they can be woven together to form an impenetrable barrier. Add to that the thorns on the branches, and planting hedge-apple trees along the borders of fields and pastures can create living fences.

In his Journal, Isaac describes helping a neighbor plant these trees: "I all day at putting up my 3 runner marker planter & helped Bob Bland drag their first 5 acres in osage seed (planted 5 acres in 2 hours)." Although Isaac does not describe it, presumably the seedlings that grew from the drag planting were later transplanted into rows or hedges. According to one writer, "No other wood played such an important part in the early movement West by the settlers as the Osage Orange."

Many people, including my mother-in-law, believe that the hedge apples themselves repel insects. Among those proponents, some suggest cutting the fruit into wedges to better release the milky juice. No commercial use of the juice has been discovered, but various compounds have been extracted from the heartwood for use in products such as an antifungal and a food preservative. The tree so valuable to homesteaders like Isaac may yet find modern uses.


The Blog Fodder said...

This tree is new to me so it likely doesn't grow farther north. Grow your own fence posts is a great idea, especially when they last as you say for decades.
Your description of playing in the pasture sure brought back memories. We had 2 quarters of native prairie with several poplar (aspen) bluffs around sloughs where we played as kids.
Our local fence posts were diamond willow pickets, posts were cedar and came from BC. They lasted for 30 years. I remember helping dad pull some old ones up, turn them over and tamp them back into the holes.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

I wish everyone could read all the great comments sent to me by e-mail and posted on facebook. People have lots of stories about putting hedge apples in their basements to repel spiders and crickets. Some say it worked, and others aren't so sure. This has been a popular post!