Sunday, March 2, 2014

Plant Story--The Many Uses of Osage-Orange, Maclura pomifera, Wood

Osage-orange fruits
Osage-orange trees with fruits
Planted all over the U.S., Osage-orange, Maclura pomifera is a curious native North American tree. Clearly related to mulberries despite its huge fruit it is classified in the mulberry family, Moraceae. For a long time it was the only member of its genus, Maclura. Recently, genetic and molecular studies have recognized about a dozen relatives from around the world and added them to the genus. In particular the South American tree Maclura tinctoria, called old fustic, dyer's mulberry and toothache tree, is now included in the genus Maclura so Osage-orange is no longer the only Maclura species. 

Osage-orange grows to be a substantial tree getting 30' tall. The current North American record is held by a tree at Patrick Henry National Memorial in Red Hill, Virginia which they report as 55' high with branches that span 90' (link). What people usually remember about Osage-orange are the fruits. They are very distinctive: bigger than oranges, ripening to an orange color, but on the inside unappealing. pictures on Google  The tree grew in the lands of the Osages, and so the tree was named Osage-orange. (People don't usually put the hyphen in there, but it isn't in any way a citrus fruit or related to edible oranges, so the hyphen is helpful). 

Osage-orange is the common name the U.S.D.A. plants list uses but this tree has many different common names, which often reflect its uses. One is bois d'arc, also written bois de arc, and meaning "bow wood" in French. When the French traders arrived in North America, they were shown the best bows on the continent, and those were made of Maclura pomifera. Although the tree grew only in a small area where Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas meet, bows of bois d'arc were found as far away as with the Blackfeet in Montana and the Iroquois in New York. In 1810 an Osage-orange bow traded for a horse and a blanket among the Plains Indians. The wood is the densest native to North America. It is hard to work, but the resulting bow was outstanding. (bows)

The wood is still greatly prized by wood workers. Making either a bow or a box is hard work but rewarding. The wood is  a nice light orange color. (google images)

Bois d'arc has been turned into another common name of Maclura pomifera, bodark.

Wool and silk dyed with Osage-orange Maclura pomifera
Wool and silk dyed with Osage-orange
Maclura pomifera 
(less-dyed edge of the silk was intentionaustic. 

The light orange wood makes a strong yellow-orange dye. Containing morin, it, like old fustic, Maclura tinctoria, (see post on M. tinctoria) makes handsome, color-fast yellows, oranges and olive greens. Consequently it is a favorite of amateur natural dyers. There was never much of a dye industry in the United States that used Osage-orange, probably because the tree wasn't originally found on the U.S. East Coast, and by the time the middle of the continent was settled, aniline dyes had been invented.  However, it was briefly used during the First World War as a substitute for old fustic.

Another common name is hedge apple. Although originally confined to the Arkansas/Texas/Oklahoma corner, Osage-orange was spread by settlers to make fences.

As famers and ranchers moved out of the East Coast into the U.S. Midwest, confining their livestock and keeping animals out of their crops were ongoing problems. We rarely appreciate how important the invention of barbed wire was. Before that, effective fencing was desperately needed. Osage-orange has very strong branches and long thorns. Settlers discovered that if they planted the trees close together, they would grow into a living fence. The entwined branches were stiff enough and strong enough to hold livestock in the pasture. "Horse-high, bull-strong and pig-tight" was the phrase of John A. Wright, editor of The Prairie Farmer and Jonathan B. Turner, who are credited with promoting Osage-orange for fences and distributing seeds all over United States, beginning about 1850. Consequently, Osage-oranges were widely planted as living fences. They grew (and grow) successfully in all but seven states in the continental US,  and southeastern Canada.  USDA map

Osage-orange, Maclura pomifera
Maclura pomifera
In the 1870s effective forms of barbed wire were produced and quickly replaced Osage-orange (barbed wire story). Active planting of Osage-orange stopped. In many places the tree doesn't spread very fast, expanding only from root suckers, so neglect created isolated stands of mature trees. Other places people are concerned about the weedy potential of Osage-orange because, if the seeds are spread, the trees readily invade disturbed pastures and the tough wood and long spines make them unwelcome. Over the last 100 years, the number of Osage-orange trees across the U.S. has declined. Land owners don't need them for fences. They are very thorny and some people get dermatitis from the sap. So they have been steadily removed. 

I do not think of the history of the United States as very long. The area where I live was settled after 1865. But for Osage-orange there has been time enough for settlers to spread the plant from its home area over a wide region, for the living fences to grow big, and then for the trees to be considered useless, removed, and for the plant to become uncommon again.

Untreated, the wood resists decay much better than most woods, due to an antifungal compound in the heartwood. Consequently it made extremely durable fenceposts. Decay resistance combined with its strength made it excellent for railroad ties and while wooden wagons and carriages were the chief form of transportation, it was a wood of choice for wheels and rims. These uses are of chiefly historical interest since wood has been replaced by other materials.
Finally, this very dense wood burns very hot. The extreme heat it produces can overheat both fireplaces and stoves, possibly cracking of fireplace bricks or glass doors (see comments on Homesteading Today ). The wood readily sparks and explodes, making it dangerous in fireplaces.  If you are getting rid of it, trade it to woodworkers or natural dyers. Burn it only very carefully.

Today you can find it called monkey balls, monkey fruit and monkey brains, seeming to me to reflect our reaction to its big funny-looking fruit in an era when the wood is no longer in demand. 

From a very limited native range at the edge of the Great Plains, Osage-orange has been spread and now reduced due to its usefulness to people and our changing needs.

Comments and corrections welcome.

More about Osage-orange in a future post.

DiPietrantonio, Stefano. Keeping you safe: Osage oranges. accessed 1/25/2014
McCallum, Frances T. and James Mulkey Owens, "BARBED WIRE," Handbook of Texas Online (, accessed May 07, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Smith, Jeffrey L. and Janice V. Pering. 1981. Osage orange (Maclura pomifera): history and economic uses. Economic Botany. 35(1): 24-41.
Searching for Osage-orange, bodark and bois d'arc on the web yields may interesting stories.

Kathy Keeler

No comments:

Post a Comment