Osage Orange: A Wood for All Seasons

Reader Contribution by David Boyt
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I feel like a wimp. Here in the Missouri Ozarks, 20 degrees is cold enough to keep me inside, except for those outside chores that need to be done. I have managed to get in a little sawmilling on the weekends.

We have a tree known as “hedge”, “Osage orange”, “bodark”, or “horse apple”. It is not a particularly large tree, and thought by most people to be a nuisance. Back during the depression, the CCC planted millions of them along the edges of fields to form natural fences, known around here as “hedgerows”. The idea was to reduce the wind over the fields and reduce soil erosion. They also make an impenetrable barrier. Now they are considered a nuisance, because they have thorns, and the wood just doesn’t rot. They are mostly used for fence posts, and firewood. The wood is excellent for both. Fence posts last 100+ years in the ground. As firewood, it burns so hot that it is possible to forge metal with it. I remember one night a few years ago when the house was unusually warm, considering it was below 0 degrees outdoors. When I got up to look at our wood stove, it was glowing in the dark! My wife, not knowing the difference, had filled the firebox with seasoned hedge. There wasn’t much we could do, other than keep an uneasy eye on it for the next few hours.

Hedge has a long and honored place in the history of the Ozarks. Its name “bodark” comes from the French “bois ‘darc”, which translates to “beautiful bow”, referring to the (archery) bows made from it by loca

l native Americans. The theory is that bois d’arc evolved to “Ozark”. Sounds reasonable. The wood is still highly prized by bowyers, luthiers, and other craftsmen. The same properties that make the hedge good for bows and fence posts makes it ideal for tool handles. Cant hooks, shovels, rakes, hammers, and other wooden-handled tools are eventually being changed over to hand carved hedge handles that have unmatched resilience and durability. Hedge makes good foundation timbers and blocking—in fact, it is like growing my own cement blocks! 

I am ranting on about this wood because I recently came across a motherload of hedge a couple of weeks ago. The forty or so hedge trees were bulldozed into tangled piles, just to get rid of them, I was told that I could take all I wanted before the landowner burned the piles. In addition to the usual hassles, I have to winch the logs out to where I can get to them with a chain saw. No flat tires from that job, yet, but I came home looking like I’d lost a wrestling match with a porcupine. While I can have all I want for firewood, my interest is in the straightest stems and root balls. Any wood that will make lumber will go on my sawmill. Fortunately, the Norwood mill can handle the odd sizes and shapes. As one of the most dense hardwoods in North America, milling is slow going, but very much worthwhile. The bright yellow color of the boards eventually turns honey brown, but is still very attractive. Local woodworkers like hedge, because it is so unusual. Bowl turners are particularly anxious to get any roots I can obtain because of the interwoven grain. Hopefully, four more loads will finish up that job. It is time I got back to tending our walnut trees.

The downside of hedge is the tree itself. It is the thorniest, most contrary tree I know. It seldom grows straight enough to put on the sawmill, is often hollow, and the thorns are tough on tires.

In fact we have one place on our tree farm that I refer to as “Osage Flats”—not because it on a flat piece of land (it is actually on a hill)—but because that’s where a thorn punctured a tractor tire (rear tire, of course). Branches I piled up twenty years ago refuse to decay (including the thorns!), and stumps sprout dozens of thorny stems. 

If there is still any doubt as to the resiliency of Osage orange, this photo shows a massive tree that took the full force of the 2011 Joplin MO tornado. There was nothing else—tree or building—standing within a half-mile of this tree after the F5 tornado roared through. Though stripped of its leaves, it survived, and appeared in good condition last summer. It is, however in an area that has been designated a “development corridor” by the Chamber of Commerce. It would be ironic for this iconic tree to succumb to the blade of a D9 Caterpillar. If that is the case, I’ll be out there to salvage every bit of it I can. I’ll let you know.

When I started this blog, I thought I’d just write a paragraph about salvaging some hedge wood, then move on to something else, but the subject was just too close to my heart to let it go that quickly. Running the sawmill allows me to look at trees and logs differently. The mill is not only a source of building materials and income, it has allowed me to give trees new life as furniture and works of art. Although it usually passes from my sawmill on to someone with more skill, it is still an honor and a thrill to be part of the process.