Osage orange trees deserve respect


Long after my father had retired, he would often head out to the farm to “trim hedge” out of force of habit.

My grandfather Suderman once told me about his memories of planting hedgerows and how the saplings were woven together to form an impenetrable barrier. In Texas such hedgerows were defined as “horse high, bull strong and pig tight.”

Increasingly, the Osage orange tree fascinates me. I have a carved Osage orange vase in my office in Chicago that I bought at the Arts and Crafts fair in Hillsboro some years ago.  

And this year, I gave Marion County hedge apples as Christmas gifts to my friends. (My friends complained that hedge apples rotted rather quickly. I told them they were given a “seasonal” gift not a permanent gift like a fruitcake).

While in London some years back, I went to the Kew Gardens—an astonishing collection of plants from around the world and saw a hedge tree—a sickly looking specimen one could cut down with a weed whacker.

A few weeks ago I was in Philadelphia and went to St. Peters Episcopal Church. In the cemetery behind the church are five of the tallest hedge trees I have ever seen—with trunks it would take two adults to embrace. Apparently these trees are from cuttings sent back from the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804.

But the history is not entirely clear. There is a reasonable chance the hedge tree in London is also from the specimens brought back from Lewis and Clark.

But to confound the problem, at the home of Patrick Henry in Virginia there is a giant hedge tree believed to be 300 years old—which would predate the Lewis and Clark expedition by a century.

“We put up signs every year warning people about the dangers of falling hedge apples,” said a nice lady who was in church waiting for her daughter to finish choir practice.

The hedge tree has a remarkable part in American history. The Osage Indians—and other plains tribes used it for making bows. Thus the early French explorers called it, “Bois d’arc”—the bow of the arch. (This term  is still used  in Eastern Kansas and Texas.)

Before barbed wire became common, hedge trees were part of settling the frontier. Around 1850, Texans were exporting hedge seeds to Ohio for a peak price of $50 a bushel.

Since the Osage orange is first cousin to the mulberry tree, when attempts were made to do silk production in America, it was discovered that silkworms thrived on hedge trees. Alas, the entire silk industry never became profitable.

The hedge tree today ranks somewhere between a nuisance and an oddity. Bow hunting, fences and silk all depend on other materials. Fireplaces are decorative elements in homes and rarely part of central heating. Hedge trees are in an invasive species in pastures and fields and take valuable space and moisture.

In 2004 the United States congress declared the oak tree the national American tree. The oak tree is a decent enough tree—good for furniture, flooring and paneling. It grows slowly and produces acorns that are hardly more useful than hedge apples.

Today even the most ardent tree huggers rarely hug a hedge tree. But the hedge tree is a part of American history. It is tough, persistent and almost useful.  It also deserves some respect.


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