The Osage orange tree's purpose evolved as history developed

Few Missouri trees have histories that are more interesting than the Osage orange.

These trees are probably most noticeable at this time of year due to the large bright green fruit — called “hedge apples” or “Osage oranges” — that appear on the trees in late summer and early fall. Also known as hedge, hedge apple or bois d’arc trees, these thorny trees are frequently associated with the overgrown and neglected edges of pastures, fields and old farmsteads. In most settings, hedge trees appear to be little more than scrub vegetation in forgotten corners of the landscape.

Many landowners are aware of the superior quality of this tree’s wood as a source of fence posts. Hedge is also known for the heat it produces when used as firewood. However, this is just scratching the surface of this tree’s story. (Since “Osage orange” and “hedge” are common names for this tree, they’re used interchangeably throughout this article.)

The Osage orange tree, Maclura pomifera, is a close relative of fig trees and breadfruit trees and can attain heights of up to 50 feet. Its heavy, close-grained trunk and branches is made up of one of the densest woods produced by any tree in North America. Although it’s often cited as a native tree of Missouri, Osage orange trees were probably not part of the state’s pre-settlement landscape. Its true native range is thought to have been the Red River basin area of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.

Osage orange trees very likely came to Missouri through intentional introduction by early settlers (and possibly Native Americans, too), but this tree’s interesting story doesn’t start with purposeful plantings.

To start at the beginning of the hedge’s history, take a closer look at those large green hedge balls. Contrary to what’s sometimes said, hedge balls are not toxic to livestock. Livestock have died from eating them, but that’s likely because a hedge ball became lodged in the animal’s throat, not because the creature was poisoned. It would seem hedge trees are inviting wildlife to eat their fruits by making them big and obvious, but these large green balls generate little interest among present day vegetation-eating animals. A few animals pick at them, but most hedge balls fall to the ground and rot.

However, go back to when woolly mammoths roamed these parts, and you’d find hedge apples weren’t so neglected. It’s thought hedge balls were food for mammoths, mastodons, sloths and other giant prehistoric Ice Age herbivores that browsed the canopies of local trees. This consumption was beneficial to the hedge tree because the tree’s seeds — located in the fruit — were dropped with the animal’s feces and, thus, given a wide means of dispersal.

Just as some flowers have evolved to favor specific pollinating insects and birds, it’s theorized the large size and easy-to-see placement of hedge fruit was a symbiotic relationship the tree forged with large prehistoric tree-browsing mammals to help spread its seed.

As humans replaced mammoths on the landscape, the Osage orange remained a tree of prime importance, but the focus shifted from the fruit to its wood. Native Americans discovered the tree’s sturdy branches made excellent bows, and by the time the first European explorers arrived, Osage orange bows were a highly valued trade item in the Native American commerce that flowed across the central part of the continent. Osage orange bows were revered by tribes from the forests of Ohio westward to the foothills of the Rockies and from the northern Great Plains to the Southwest. This archery-driven importance of the wood is reflected in the name the French gave to the tree — “bois d’arc,” which means “wood of the bow.”

As American pioneers displaced Native American tribesmen, Osage orange trees continued to hold a place of prominence. In addition to the sturdiness of its wood, the tree began to be appreciated by pioneer farmers for its fencing purposes. A single row of Osage orange trees planted a foot apart would, in three to four years, produce a fence-like vegetative barrier that served livestock owners well in the years before the invention of barbed wire fences.

Some settlers wove the limbs of the young trees together — a technique known as “plashing” — to create an even more impenetrable barrier. The tree many called “Osage orange” because it was common in the land of the Osage Indian tribe or “bois d’arc” because of its connection with archery now acquired another name. Many settlers began to call these trees “hedges” because the vegetative barriers their plantings formed were similar to the hedgerows many farmers in Europe utilized.

The popularity of hedge tree field barriers spawned the formation of a number of hedge nurseries in the mid-1800s and created a booming market for the seeds. In the 1860s, the price for Osage orange seeds soared to $50 a bushel. In one year, 18,000 bushels of hedge seeds — enough, according to one report, “to plant 100,000 miles of hedge rows” — was shipped to the Pacific Northwest. By 1879, it was reported that Monroe and Nodaway counties in north Missouri each had more than 2,000 miles of hedgerows.

It was during this same period, the 1870s, that the development of barbed wire began to draw the curtain on the tree-planting boom one newspaper had dubbed “hedge mania.” As use of barbed wire became widespread, hedgerows transformed from field borders into thick, overgrown shelterbelts that provided nesting and protective habitat for many wildlife species.

Throughout the Midwest, thousands of hedge trees also became the prime source of fence posts. It was an irony few farmers probably realized — the tree that had once been the Midwest’s most popular fencing material was now used to support the land’s most popular type of fence.

Though much of the Osage orange tree’s prominence has gone by the wayside, some landowners are still interested in this tree as a source of fence posts, firewood or wildlife habitat. Osage orange is one of many trees that can be ordered through the Missouri Department of Conservation’s annual tree seedling sales program, which begins in November each year.

If you’re a landowner interested in using hedge trees to promote wildlife habitat or another conservation-oriented purpose on your property, now’s the time to contact a Missouri Department of Conservation Private Land Conservationist for advice. Information about landowner assistance and how trees can improve your land can be found at your nearest Missouri Department of Conservation office or at mdc.mo.gov.

Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call 417-895-6880


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