By Walter Munday
Osage orange is a unique tree with a remarkable history. No other tree in central North America has had such a long and close relationship with humans – both Native Americans and settlers.
The tree’s native range was a small area in western Arkansas, southern Oklahoma and parts of east Texas. Early explorers did find the trees growing near Osage Indian villages. And it was from the branch wood of the Osage orange tree that the Indians made their highly prized bows. Osage orange bow blanks and finished bows were prime items of barter among the tribes.
So sought after was the Osage orange bow, it was used by Shawnee and Wyandotte Indians in Ohio and the Blackfoot Indians in Montana. The bows must have been traded over a distance of 2,000 miles.
Indians had other uses for Osage orange. The stout wood was well suited for war clubs and tomahawk handles. The ridged and scaly bark of the trunk provided both a fiber for rope and tannin for making leather.
The roots and inner bark were used to make a light orange dye. Early pioneers adopted this dye for their homespun cloth and later it was used commercially to color the American forces’ olive drab uniforms during World War I.
Pioneers found more uses. The wood’s hardness and low shrinkage made it valuable for wagon wheel hubs and rims. Supposedly, the first chuck wagon ever built was made of Osage orange to withstand the terrible bumping of the Texas panhandle. Cattle yokes were fashioned from the many angled limbs.
As early as 1806 President Thomas Jefferson referred to the Osage orange in a message to Congress. He had heard from British explorers of the Arkansas country about the tree’s potential as a hedge plant, a potential soon to be realized.
A single row of hedge trees planted a foot apart would yield a fence that was “horse high, bullstrong, and hog-tight” in 4 years. Some farmers would weave the already twisted and intertwined limbs of the young trees tightly together, a technique known as “plashing,” for a more impenetrable barrier.
“Hedge mania,” as one newspaper called it, was rampant.
But in 1874, Osage orange met its match. A new invention, barbed wire, was now cheaper to use for fencing. Although the Osage orange planting storm had passed, the tree had been planted in all 48 contiguous states.
By the early 1900s the Osage orange hedge was said to be generally disliked by farmers. The plants needed annual trimming, sapped water from adjacent crop land and spread to adjacent fields.
The multiflora rose, being promoted by the Soil Conservation Service and Extension Service, offered an alternative stock-proof fence. (Like most exotic plant introductions, however, this species would later prove most undesirable.)
Many Osage orange hedges were removed and replaced with wire fences. Many were just left unmaintained. When the well-trimmed Osage orange hedges of the 1800s were allowed to grow, they matured into tall trees with spreading crowns.
These shelter-belts provided habitat for many wildlife species. Nesting sites, roosting cover, travel lanes and food from the plants that grew up under the trees were all provided by the hedgerow.
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.
In fact, the department has repurposed an Osage Orange Tree as a play structure here at Creason Park.
It’s a 17-foot (was approximately 30 feet before being taken out by storm winds in Shawnee Park) Osage Orange Tree turned upside down and implanted back into the ground. The tree is believed to be about 50-60 years old.
So, that’s the Osage Orange Tree Story. Remember… the fruit from the tree is inedible!