The Osage Orange Tree: Useful and Historically Significant

The Osage orange tree, once a favorite of American settlers, deserves a look from modern-day homesteaders.

| March/April 1985

  • Osage Orange Fruit
    Though the Osage orange tree is incredibly useful for fencing, its fruit is inedible and can irritate the skin.
    PHOTO: FOTOLIA/SERHIY SHULLYE
  • 092-121-01
    A fence made with Osage orange is basically a "fence that builds itself"!
    DAVE WAYMAN

  • Osage Orange Fruit
  • 092-121-01

"Good fences make good neighbors," wrote poet Robert Frost. But what, exactly, makes a good fence?

If you've ever had the dubious pleasure of putting a fence up — of cutting, splitting and setting posts and stretching wire — you just might answer, "A fence that builds itself." And since you're fantasizing, you might add, "...and takes care of itself, too."

Well, believe it or not, there is such a fence. Chances are you've seen one while driving along rural roads and looking out over neat hedgerow-lined fields. During the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first few decades of this one — up until the time barbed wire became widely available and inexpensive — settlers and farmers throughout much of the eastern half of the United States planted their fences.

More often than not, the tree they used was the Osage orange tree, sometimes also called prairie hedge, hedge apple, horse apple, bowwood or yellow-wood. Most folks today, though, know it only for its distinctly ugly, almost otherworldly-looking fruit: an inedible, fleshy green orb the size of a grapefruit or large orange, with a warty, furrowed surface sparsely covered with long, coarse hairs. When you break the globe open, it exudes a bitter, milky, sticky sap that eventually turns black and that gives some people an irritating rash.



But beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder, and any homesteader who places greater value on usefulness than on appearance will find much to admire in the Osage orange.

The Extraordinary Osage Orange Tree

Osage (Maclura pomifera) is the sole surviving member of the genus Maclura — of its many relatives from past geologic eras, only fossils remain. It is also, however, a member of the family Moraceae, which encompasses the mulberries and the figs, as well as a large number of tropical and semitropical trees.

Bobby
1/17/2020 10:20:14 AM

When we heated our home with a wood stove, I was always elated to have Osage in the wood pile! The only thing that burns hotter and puts out more BTU's is coal.Even after the wood burned it left a bed of embers that easily started another fire. Never worried about it going out overnight! Great wood!!!


mark
1/1/2020 9:36:39 AM

It is also the perfect wood for fire starting and cooking. You can find dead limbs in the understory which can be broken off and split in half then with a trusty knife, shave off long shavings which light easily to start a fire. Even after a rain when all is wet, by splitting the wood and making shavings from the inner yellow pieces, a fire can be started. The wood also burns hot and clean, not a lot of smoke. Contrast this with Cedar, whose shavings light easy but creates a smoky fire. Oak, while it burns clean and hot, will not light from shavings. You could go through a box of matches trying to light oak shavings. So Bois D'arc is perfect. Dry limbs easy to collect from understory of the tree, easy to make shavings from split wood which light easily. Wood burns hot and clean.


EmpirePrairie
11/2/2019 12:13:02 PM

En Francais, Bois is wood and arc is bow. Staves from Osage Orange where used to make native american bows in the central part of the United States. Other woods were used for arrows. The French also named another native tree found in the Louisiana Purchase, the Eastern Red Cedar, Baton (stick) Rouge (red). A benefit of both these trees is their resistance to rot and insect damage. If you do not want the delay (and thorns) of a living fence, a hedge post is a good option for stringing wire on. We used to say, "put the small end in the ground and it will last 100 years, put the big end down and it will last forever." Only the red heartwood of cedar is resistant, so it is much less suitable since the white outer sapwood will decay at ground level and leave an unsightly and weaker post. But a red cedar pole barn near St. Louis is still standing after 50 years.






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