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

"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.





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