- What Is Osage Orange – Information About Osage Orange Trees
- What is Osage Orange?
- Osage Orange Growing Conditions
- The Osage Orange Tree: Useful and Historically Significant
- Osage Orange
- Maclura Pomifera
- How to Grow Osage Orange Trees From Seed
- Growing Osage orange trees from seed
What Is Osage Orange – Information About Osage Orange Trees
The Osage orange tree is an unusual tree. Its fruit are wrinkled green balls the size of grapefruit. On the other hand, the trees’ yellow wood is strong and flexible, and so dense that it is immune to termites. Growing an Osage orange tree is fast and easy. Read on for information about Osage orange trees.
What is Osage Orange?
Many people have never heard of this tree. If you mention it, expect questions like: “What is Osage orange?”
The Osage orange tree (Maclura pomifera) is no kin to the citrus, but the fruit has a faint orangey fragrance strong enough to result in the common name. Its odd shape and color have given it many nicknames, including green brains and hedge apple.
The tree also bears long, tough thorns, sharp as steel and can bust tires. These make it a top choice as a defensive hedge. For years, these trees were used for hedges throughout the eastern half of the nation. Farmers planted the tough little trees in tight rows and pruned them well to keep them bushy.
The invention of barbed wire put an end to living Osage hedges, but the wood continued being used for fence posts. It contains tetrahydroxystilbene, an anti-fungicide that may deter insects. Perhaps this chemical is what gives the dense wood its resistance to rot. It’s an excellent wood for fence posts and ship masts.
If you are interested in growing an Osage orange tree in a hedge, it will likely stay under 20 feet tall, but in the wild, trees can grow much taller. The trunk grows to several feet in diameter.
Osage Orange Growing Conditions
Growing an Osage orange trees is not difficult since the trees grow readily from both seeds and cuttings. Separating the seeds can be a challenge. It is easiest if you wait for fruit to fall to the ground and freeze in winter, since the cold temperatures facilitate seed-removal.
Start growing Osage orange trees by planting individual seeds in pots indoors. Don’t start them outside unless you know exactly where you want them to stand in the garden. These trees are not easy to transplant from one place to another outside.
Osage are tough native trees and are not picky about growing conditions. This makes the care of Osage orange trees easy. Well-drained soil, adequate irrigation and a sunny location helps the tree grow rapidly and stay healthy.
If all this information about Osage orange trees makes you want to start growing one, the squirrels will thank you. Osage orange seeds are a favorite squirrel snack.
Osage Orange seeds have a relatively shallow dormancy within them, this requires a degree of patience to overcome and it is usually quite easy to get high levels of germination if the correct procedures are followed.
First soak the seeds in water for 24 hours then drain off the water. Next prepare a free draining substrate into which the seeds are to be mixed, this can be a 50/50 mixture of compost and sharp sand, or perlite, vermiculite. The chosen substrate mix needs to be moist (but not wet), if you can squeeze water out of it with your hand it is too wet and your seeds may drown and die.
Mix the seeds into the substrate, making sure that their is enough volume of material to keep the seeds separated. Place the seed mixture into a clear plastic bag (freezer bags, especially zip-lock bags are very useful for this -provided a little gap is left in the seal for air exchange) If it is not a zip-lock type bag it needs to be loosely tied. Then write the date on the bag so that you know when the pretreatment was started.
The seeds require a sustained cold period to break down the dormancy that is within them, this is easily achieved by placing the prepared bag of seeds and compost mix in the fridge (4 Celsius or 39F) for 4 weeks. It is quite possible for the seeds to germinate in the bag at these temperatures when they are ready to do so, if they do, just remove them from the bag and carefully plant them up. Seeds that are ready to germinate will have become plump and soft.
At the end of the pre-treatment period sow the seeds onto a firm bed of good quality moist compost and cover with a few millimeters of additional moist compost. Gently firm this down and keep in a warm place, away from hot sunshine at between 15-20 Celsius. Germination should begin within a few weeks.
Do not expose newly sown seeds to high temperatures (above 25 Celsius) otherwise a secondary dormancy may be induced and the seeds will not germinate until they have been pretreated again. Germinated seeds can be planted in pots or plug trays in a good quality compost. Keep the seedlings well watered and weed free. Growth in the first year is usually between 5 and 15cm and and usually trouble free. Allow them to grow for 2 or 3 years before planting them in a permanent position.
The Osage Orange Tree: Useful and Historically Significant
When mature, the Osage orange measures from 10 to 50 feet tall and has a trunk 1 to 2 feet in diameter. Its branches form an even, round crown, unless the trees are growing closely together in a hedge and don’t have room to spread naturally. Between May and July, the species sports tiny greenish flowers.
Other distinguishing characteristics of the Osage orange include deeply furrowed, braidedlooking, dark orange bark; long (3- to 5-inch), shiny, egg-shaped, dark green leaves, which are pointed at one end; and (perhaps most significantly) many sharp, steel strong thorns that make this tree a formidable barrier, to say the least.
But Osage orange’s value extends well beyond its use as a living hedge.
A Tree With a Past
When early French settlers ventured west of the Mississippi River — into what is now eastern Texas and Oklahoma and western Arkansas — they encountered the Osage Indians, who were known far and wide for making bows that were superior weapons for fighting and hunting. The unusual tree that the Osage used for making their bows was unknown to the French, who promptly dubbed it bois d’arc, or “wood of the bow.” Later pioneers corrupted the name to bowdark, and eventually came to call it bowwood.
In fact, it didn’t take the early pioneers long to acknowledge that Osage orange was a valuable timber resource. Because of its great strength and durability, the settlers used the newly discovered tree in nearly every application that required a tough, tenacious wood.
The hubs and rims of the wheels on farm wagons, covered wagons and chuck wagons were made from Osage. Its great strength enabled it to bear heavy loads, while its flexibility made it relatively easy to bend into the circle of a wheel rim and also gave it the capacity to absorb shock without cracking or splitting. Those properties, added to the wood’s ability to resist the effects of soil and moisture, made for high-mileage wheel rims.
Unfortunately, the wood’s extraordinary ability to resist rot also put the tree in great demand, causing the huge native stands of Osage orange growing in the bottomlands of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas to be harvested wholesale for use as fence posts and railroad ties. Osage orange might have ended up being a very rare sight for most Americans were it not for its suitability as a hedge. The plant met all of the qualifications: It was “horse-high, bull-strong and pig-tight.” The tree was easily propagated from seed, and grew fast. In a few years, it would form a hedge almost tight enough to hold water. Any spaces between the trees would be screened by the Osage’s thick, thorny branches. And since the trees propagate by sending up shoots from their roots, all the holes would eventually fill in with new trees.
If planted close together, Osages would grow only to about 20 or 30 feet, never attaining the height of most deciduous trees. Consequently, they made perfect field borders: They could contain livestock without shading crops excessively. Besides, it was a lot easier to plant trees in lines around fields and pastures than it was to erect and maintain rail or stockade fences.
As a result, thousands of miles of Osage hedges were planted in the Midwest, East and South, far beyond the original range of the species. The tree was hardy and adapted well to new surroundings, and today it can be found growing (mostly in hedges) from the Great Plains to the Eastern Seaboard, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.
Although not commonly used for fencing anymore (some people claimed that, once established, the trees were hard to control and that their thorns sometimes injured livestock), the stands of Osage planted fifty to a hundred years ago remain a valuable resource. Some farmers still utilize them as natural enclosures, and many more use the trees for making exceptionally long-lasting fence posts. Crafts people — woodworkers and those who make and use natural dyes — hold the Osage orange in high esteem. And, perhaps most important, the trees serve as windbreaks and as badly needed cover for wildlife.
If Frost was right in saying that “good fences make good neighbors,” then the Osage is truly remarkable, because it is both a good fence and a good neighbor, to man and beast alike.
Learn how to make a living fence out of Osage orange.
Osage Orange: A Wood for All Seasons
Maclura pomifera: Osage-Orange, Hedge, Hedge Apple, Bodark Susan Borecki, AGRO / HORT 100G Spring 2002
Osage-orange trees are native to an area centered on the Arkansas and Red River valleys in southern Oklahoma and northern Texas. They derive their name from the Osage Indians. These people prized the wood from the osage-orange for its strength and elasticity. They used it primarily for making hunting bows and war clubs. The wood is strong and so dense that it will neither rot nor succumb to the attacks of termites or other insects for decades. Dried for firewood, it is the next best thing to coal.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries the tree was planted throughout the United States probably more than almost any other tree species in North America. Before the invention of barbed wire in the 1880’s, many thousands of miles of hedge were constructed by planting osage-orange trees closely together in a line. The saplings were aggressively pruned to promote bushy growth. Osage-orange can be either a shrub or a tree, depending on its surroundings. Standing alone in full sun it will become a multi-stemmed shrub; with neighboring competition it can become a single-stemmed tree. Although it is the only member of its genus (a monotype), it is cousin to the mulberry family (Moraceae). Osage-orange possesses strong form, texture, and character, maturing with a thick, gnarled appearance. The trees are easily recognized by their glossy, lance-shaped leaves and their short, stout thorns. Generally they live a trouble-free life in the home landscape. Preferring open sunny areas, they can grow in a variety of soils and is considered hardy to Zone 5. Occasionally they may be attacked by leafy mistletoc, verticillium wilt, fungal diseases, stem borers, scale, and some rodents. Considered as one of the most drought-tolerant trees and shrubs, an established osage-orange will need supplemental watering only twice a month during the summer.
The osage-orange averages a height of 30-25 feet, but heights of more than 60 feet have been recorded. The tallest osage-orange stands at Red Hill, the home of Patrick Henry in Brookneal, Virginia. Both a National Champion and a member of the American Forestry Hall of Fame, this 400-year-old specimen has an eighty-five foot span and stands sixty feet high. Generally, the tree’s circumference reaches 4 to 7 feet, although 1.5 feet is the average, and the crown spread reaches up to 60 feet (with an average of 25 feet).
The skin of the fruit has a pleasant, orange-peel smell. It is a large, dense, green wrinkled ball up to 6″ in diameter that often persists on the tree after the leaves have fallen off. “Hedge apples”contain a chemical (2, 3, 4, 5-tetrahydroxystilbene) that has been proven to repel many bugs: cockroaches, crickets, spiders, fleas, box elder bugs and ants. Cut the fruit in half or crush it on the driveway with your car, then place it in a dish set in the pest problem area. One piece will last for a few weeks.
Ball, J. “The Versatile Osage-Orange,” American Forests, Autumn 2000.
How to Grow Osage Orange Trees From Seed
The name “osage orange” is misleading because this unattractive fruit, often called “hedge apple” or “monkey brains,” is actually a member of the mulberry family. Wild osage oranges line the roadways in parts of Oklahoma and Texas, but you can grow them in other parts of the country—they are known to exist as far away as Virginia. The best way to locate seeds is from a fruit that has fallen to the ground. Fall frosts will cause them to become mushy, which is the best time to pick seeds from the fruit—if you can beat the squirrels to them.
Cut open a fallen fruit and scoop out the seeds. Soak them for one week in warm water. Give them fresh water daily to help prevent the seeds from fermenting.
Plant one seed about ½ inch deep in each small pot. Make sure you use pots with drainage holes and use a sandy potting soil, such as the kind that is used for cactus.
Move your pots to a sunny spot and keep them well watered until you see germination begin. After germination, water your seedlings when the soil just begins to become dry.
Plant young trees in their permanent outdoor location when they are about 1 foot tall. If you want to create a hedge, plant them 5 feet apart in an area that gets full sun and into which you have put a bucketful of compost into each planting hole.
Maclura pomifera, an excellent hedging tree
In Which Some Planting Gets Done, with Hope
Part of an ongoing series about the post-modern hedgerow and its uses in the landscape.
Under a gray October sky, with a stiff prairie breeze coming from the south and west, six people were planting little saplings along the line that divides our Quaker-owned property from an expansive field to the west. A farming friend, also a Quaker, who lives down the road and helps care for the property, walked over, smiling under his baseball cap. What are you putting in?” he asked. “Osage-oranges,” I said, “we’re making a hedgerow.” His face rearranged itself slightly. “Oh. What are you doing that for? What will I say to my neighbors? Do you know the heat I’ll catch if it gets out we’re growing Osage-oranges? Everybody around here hates them. We’ve spent so much time getting rid of those things. They’re messy. The hedge apples are bad for the machinery.”
My friend is in his seventies and has lived in Putnam County, Illinois his entire life. He’s seen a thing or two. He remembers when farms used to be small mixed farms with long crop rotations, livestock, chickens and vegetable gardens. He remembers when Osage-orange hedges were actually used as livestock barriers, “and we’d have to go out every year and cut them with machetes. What a lot of work. I can’t believe you’re doing this.” He considers the remnant, neglected hedgerows elsewhere on the property, the Osage-oranges grown into trees interspersed with black walnuts, brambles, gooseberries, grasses, violets and a mixture of other native and non-native wildings, to be messy—though admittedly good for birds. He remembers farmers, including himself, getting rid of most hedgerows in the county, later planting multiflora roses at the government’s recommendation, and subsequent struggles with that: multiflora rose has become such a nuisance that it’s now illegal in Illinois and most other states. “I’d probably get arrested—I’ve still got it on my property, though I keep mowing,” he said. Besides growing corn and soy, he keeps bees, maintains a bee meadow planted to a mix of native flowers and white clover, and looks after a “timber,” a remnant woodland full of native forbs and grasses that slopes down to a creek—person and property in marked contrast to much of the farming done around there. But still, he was wondering: why on earth would we ever plant Osage-oranges now? And what will he tell the neighbors, especially the farmer next door to our property, once the trees are big enough to be identifiable?
A backyard nursery
In the fall of 2013, I had asked an acquaintance to bring me some hedge apples, Osage-orange fruits, from the Quaker campus at McNabb, Putnam County, Illinois. My idea was that I would propagate them in my backyard so that we could create a wildlife friendly, post-modern hedgerow on the west side of campus where our land abuts land planted to soy or corn in alternate years. The trees would be the backbone, the spaces filled in with other small native trees, shrubs, and possibly forbs and grasses.
I described the hedge apples: fluorescent green, softball-sized spheres, the color appealing, even stylish. The skin is deeply wrinkled, like an orange with character, or a small brain. There is a distinct orange-y, citrusy odor. Armed with this description, she collected about ten, brought them to me, and I arranged them in a misshapen pyramid under the pagoda dogwood in my backyard, between the native ginger and the Iris reticulata. I did this on the advice of 19th century sources that said that letting the hedge apples age over the winter would make it much easier to remove the seeds and plant them come spring. There they sat, through the mild autumn—during which a few squirrels tried them out and decided they weren’t so attractive—and, covered with snow, through the first polar vortex winter.
Besides their distinctive green color, recently dropped hedge apples are very firm; inside is a sticky, milky sap with seeds lodged firmly within. You could play a game of catch with one, or set a few in the basement to help repel insects, but for planting, it really is best to let them age. In the spring, what had been firm green balls were now misshapen brown blobs. The skin had lost its integrity and had softened like wet cardboard. The sticky white interior matrix had become a reddish, slimy gel. It was planting time.
Aged hedge apples in my backyard
As far as I know, hardly anyone grows Osage-orange trees on purpose any more, though during the 1980’s garden writer Jeff Ball touted them as perfect for the suburban hedgerows he championed. Farmers in prior times would closely plant mail-order whips or plow a very shallow (an inch or less) furrow and plant with a slurry of mashed, aged hedge apples. With regular trimming, the resultant thick growth would become a stout, thorny hedge. (The seeds need warmth, light and contact with mineral soil to sprout. Plant them too deeply and they’ll refuse to appear.) Since my backyard is small, and I’d be transporting the trees out to McNabb, I cut up the fruits, smooshed out the seeds with my fingers, washed them off in a colander, and planted them in containers. In the interest of experimentation, I planted some outdoors in an old window box planter and a couple of other containers and some in flats in the greenhouse at my school. A couple of weeks later they had all germinated, coddled or not. When they had a few true leaves, I transplanted them into some old 4-inch pots I had sitting around and when I ran out of those, simply left the ones in the window box alone.
That June I brought the greenhouse-grown ones home to sit with the others and then basically ignored them, other than occasional water, for the rest of the summer. They thrived. I’d hoped to be able to plant them at McNabb in the fall, but various life events intervened and there I was, with fifty babies to get through the winter. Luckily, they were still in their small pots, so after harvesting the tomatoes and basil from my semi-raised bed, I buried the pots in the dirt and then spread a 6-8-inch thick blanket of straw over the whole, so that only the little saplings were visible. A second polar vortex winter ensued. Would they make it?
A tale of prehistoric relics
The Osage-orange, Maclura pomifera, is an ancient tree, a prehistoric survivor. Though related to the mulberry, it is alone in its genus, and is native to the North American continent, where it thrives in zones 5-9—across the Great Plains and up to Ontario. Officially, it is only native to the Red River region of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, which is where it was growing at the time of European settlement.
Thus, it has not conventionally been considered native here in Illinois, or even in Missouri, where it grows freely in the woods. With its dense wood, thorns, shiny leaves, “messy” growth habit and large fruit, it is unique in appearance and irredeemably wild in nature.
The tree is fairly small, rarely reaching more than 50 feet when allowed to grow without cutting back. In full sunlight, with plenty of space between, it develops multiple stems. It is dioecious–that is there are male and female trees; the female produces the distinctive fruit. It is thorny in the extreme and has the ability to sucker freely after coppicing. Pruning, trimming and coppicing only increase its tangled, thicketing behavior. The wood is hard, dense and rot resistant—and resilient enough that Native Americans valued it for making bows; a lively trade in “Bois d’Arc” (“bow wood”), as the French called it, or “bodark,” as my mother, originally from Texas, calls it, carried on across the continent.
Ad in the Ohio Cultivator, 1858
Nineteenth-century farmers prized the wood because it is so good for making tool handles and fence posts. And, valuable on the treeless prairie during long cold winters prior to easy access to fossil fuels, the wood burns hot and long, almost like charcoal, even requiring a coal grate. The ability to grow it and keep it trimmed in hedges that were “horse high, bull strong, and hog tight,” was an advantage in the years prior to the invention of barbed wire in 1875. No wonder Osage-orange champions Jonathan Baldwin Turner and Dr. John Kennicott, both of Illinois, were able to promote it with such ease. Turner researched and grew several species of hedging plants and touted Osage-orange as the best. Kennicott claimed that Osage-orange trees offered more economic benefits to farmers than any other crop. These men were not thinking about whether or not the tree was native or the effect it would have on ecosystems; they wanted to help farmers settle and thrive on the fertile prairies. You could say they considered Osage-orange trees to be part of the tool kit of civilization building, of Manifest Destiny, though I’m not sure either ever wrote or spoke in quite such grandiose terms.
Questions in the Midwest
Now, a person inclined to think speculatively or ecologically about plant forms might look at an Osage-orange and start wondering. For example: why does this tree respond so well to coppicing, growing only denser and thornier? Why is it so thorny in the first place? Why is its historic range so restricted and the fruits so heavy and large that they’re not be easily carried far from the mother tree the way acorns and other nuts are by squirrels? Strangely, for years, few people asked these questions. The tree went from being desirable to undesirable as cultures and agricultural practices changed. In the 20th century some of those questions did begin to be asked, but actually planting Osage-oranges, on purpose, outside of the historic range, was frowned upon, not only by farmers in the grip of the industrial farming enchantment, but also by people concerned with the ecological preservation and restoration of historic wild or natural landscapes using native plants.
These questions are easily turned around: In what sort of ecosystem, including animals, might such a tree evolve so that it could thrive and, in fact, expand its range? What would the pressures be, and what the opportunities? Trees that, when young, are grazed—or subjected to fire—often adapt to re-sprout vigorously. Trees that want to survive grazing also often develop thorns. Because they are driven to reproduce and increase their land holdings, as it were, trees produce tasty, seductive fruit and seeds, which might be light enough to travel by wind, as in the case of maple “whirligigs,” or may need hungry animals to help with dispersal. The fundamental question becomes, in what kind of landscape would the tree do well and what kinds of animals would eat hedge apples such that the seeds would travel and germinate elsewhere?
In the case of our tree, its re-sprouting ability does mean it’s well adapted to large reaches of the American continent, where for thousands of years both herds of grazers and wildfires roamed the plains. But the seriously sizable thorns? The big heavy fruits? The tree seems evolved to simultaneously repel and attract some really, really big herbivores. Yet our historic landscape has always lacked any native herbivores of the size that would think large thorns only somewhat of an impediment, or find the fruits just right for snacking.
Answers from Costa Rica
Some answers first came from Costa Rica, where, in the 1980’s, ecologists Dan Janzen and Paul Martin, faced with some detective work involving a similar “ecological anachronism,” (a plant or animal having characteristics that don’t make sense for the place where it is found), a tree called Cassia grandis, whose foot long pods no native animals would eat, but introduced horses would. They hypothesized that prior to about 13,000 years ago, when elephant-like gomphotheres, giant ground sloths (400 pounds to 3 tons) and other species of megafauna roamed the Americas, Cassia grandis would have had a wider range, the fruits being dispersed by these animals. Then, roughly 13,000 years ago, the glaciers retreated, and climate warming ensued, driving some species to extinction. The Clovis people, ancestors of today’s Native Americans, colonized the Americas, bringing their sharp spears and hunting skills to places where such large animals had never encountered such small, dangerous predators. The megafauna lost out. Gone the gomphotheres, the 5-ton mastodons, the 6-ton wooly mammoths and 9-ton Columbian mammoths, gone the giant ground sloths, native horses and camels.
9-ton Columbian mammoths once roamed North America
Could something similar to what happened to Cassia grandis have happened to the Osage-orange? It appears likely. To a 9-ton Columbian mammoth or 5-ton mastodon, hedge apples might seem the size a chocolate truffle is to us. As they browsed, roamed, ate the fruits and pooped out the seeds, the co-evolved tree maintained and possibly expanded its range. But later, absent its natural dispersers, our tree became an ecological anachronism and its range shrank—it might even have become extinct, had not the tribes in that area discovered the wood’s usefulness and started trading it, to their material advantage. Today, (re-introduced) horses pastured where Osage-oranges are present will eat hedge apples and poop out the seeds; anecdotally, trees sprout where they’ve done this. Squirrels—as I discovered this fall when they demolished a new pile of hedge apples in my backyard—also can learn to eat them, but since they shred the skin and eat the seeds, they’re not dispersers. From the field of paleoecology, with its analysis of fossilized pollen, comes the news that Osage-orange was indeed once dispersed throughout North America up to Ontario; in fact there were once seven separate species of Maclura. That range, of course, is about the same as where the tree is found now, thanks to modern humans, the new disperser. Thus, in planting our hedgerow, you could say we were planting a native species after all.
Why an Osage-orange hedgerow now?
All the saplings did indeed survive the winter. When the weather warmed up and they leafed out, I potted them on in some old one and two gallon pots. They sat in my backyard all summer; we had decided that it would be best to plant them in early fall, counting on fall rains to help them acclimate. Finally, we set a planting date, took them out to McNabb and started in to work.
As we planted the saplings, added plastic tree guards to protect them from over-enthusiastic mowers, and finally watered them in, we kept answering our friend’s questions. Yes, we were, as he observed, planting the trees too far apart to make a true hedgerow, and we weren’t planning to trim them down the first couple of years. We were going to let them grow into whatever their natural forms would be. Why was that? Because, I explained, we are making a post-modern hedgerow. I’d noticed that the Osage-oranges in our property’s remnant, naturalized hedgerows seemed to withstand herbicide drift from the neighboring fields, and we wanted some of that benefit here. The discussion went on, different members of the group chiming in. We are planning to infill with other wild native species of small trees and shrubs. We think that the Osage-oranges will help provide an environment where other species can take hold. Plants do that, the right plants in the right place helping create, or recreate a bio-diverse ecosystem that welcomes other, compatible plants; they all work together to create soil health through the process of photosynthesis. We don’t yet know exactly how wide our multi-species hedgerow will be. Besides serving as a form of windbreak against the strong prevailing west winds, it will serve as a shelterbelt for local birds and wildlife.
We talked some more about beneficial insects, birds and other animals.
Our friend, who remembers an abundance of wildlife populating the area when he was young, started smiling again when he heard “shelterbelt.” He thought this would be a better word to use in the inevitable conversations. And maybe helping birds could be worked in. Everyone likes birds, and many of his neighbors have noticed how once common species such as red-headed woodpeckers are no longer so evident.
Planting into the future
In creating this shelterbelt, this post-modern hedgerow, I like to think my friends and I are doing a form of restoration that Aldo Leopold might recognize, similar to the work he did with farmers in Wisconsin. The project does not seek to remove people or pretend that this piece of ground can be returned to a “state of nature” or to its “pre-settlement” condition. In his book “Once and Future Planet,” Irish journalist Paddy Woodworth writes about many of the thorny questions involved in restoration projects. In some cases, he says, restoration is not about attempting to “rewild,” to remove human impact. Some ancient worked landscapes, in Italy, for example, have resulted over time in increased biodiversity. And in Ireland, farmers are helping restore native woods to land where they’d gone missing in favor of monocultural tree plantations. On our property, islanded by a sea of industrial farming, we cannot return the field to the timber and prairie that once cloaked the soil; we cannot return it to a point in its historic trajectory where it could continue on a path it might have followed had it been farmed less, with less toxic methods, and more of it left wild. We can, though, restore part of a historical, remembered landscape, restoring, perhaps, an aspect that only the land might “remember” but is outside of human recorded history. By renewing a physical aspect of the landscape in danger of being lost or forgotten, we are re-affirming the history, but also, in our use of these ancient trees, reaching beyond our human history to help pull deeper time into the present—as those 19th century farmers were doing all unbeknownst to them. And we are, by beginning to reintroduce native biodiversity, pushing small levers in the currently established system. One could say we are performing an act of manumission in a place where the land has been enslaved—turned into property and used exclusively for our purposes—which, after 180 years of farming, has brought on serious natural and cultural imbalance and loss.
Environmentally, our actions will add to our property’s overall land health. Culturally, they are also part of a larger story that writer and plant ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about when discussing the Anishinaabe prophecy of the seven fires. Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. As she recounts the prophecy, in this time of the seventh fire we can choose the charred, dead path of continued environmental destruction or the living path that helps the earth. Those walking the living green path into the future, must, as part of their task during their journey, go back and pick up things left along the way—stories, life ways, methods, memories—in order to carry them forward so they can help constitute a generative future. When I saw her speak in spring of 2014, she was very clear that she thinks this prophecy is talking not only about and for Native Americans, but that we all, especially those deeply connected to the land, together must tread this path as allies.
In a memoir about his own journey into deep land awareness, British blogger and woodsman Jason Heppenstall quotes Gandhi as saying, “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” For me, the simple, mundane task of propagating that ancient species, of planting the young trees by hand, in their historic, and possibly prehistoric place, was deeply symbolic. My friends and I are re-creating but also newly creating: perhaps helping awaken something in the land, perhaps connecting to the ancient spirit of place that is always present, no matter how some humans try to kill it. We said no prayers aloud, held no ceremonies. The collective actions of growing, planting, watering and pledging to look after them seemed ceremony enough. In a few years the trees will be taller than a tall person. A few years after that they’ll become sexually mature and the females will begin to produce fruit. The hawthorns, currants, hazelnuts and other shrubs we plant with them in coming seasons will grow to fully express their shrubby natures. Birds and other creatures will take residence. Below ground, the soil biome will grow healthier and more complex and will begin to store more carbon. Our friend will stop by to check how the trees are doing and will explain to his neighbors about the new shelterbelt. In so doing, he might, just perhaps, initiate a slight cultural shift toward a new land consciousness. You never know.
Thus begins the story of the first Osage-orange hedgerow, aka shelterbelt, planted in Putnam County, Illinois in sixty or more years.
A Few Resources:
- “Aldo Leopold on Agriculture,” by Robert E. Sayer, who serves on the Advisory Board, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture
- “Living on the (H)edge,” by horticulturalist Dave Coulter
- “The Path to Odin’s Lake,” Jason Heppenstall
- Thanks to Google Books it is possible to read 19th century magazines such as the Ohio Cultivator and the Prairie Farmer, to which both Kennicott and Turner contributed, and which offer insights into 19th-century farming life
- “A Sand County Almanac,” is the great classic from Aldo Leopold
- “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indiginous Wisdom Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants,” by Robin Wall Kimmerer is a collection of thoughtful, moving essays
- “Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century,” by Paddy Woodworth is comprehensive and thought-provoking
Along one long side of my North Maple Paddock by the run-in shed, I have a row of Osage orange trees. Despite its name, it is actually a member of the fig family.
There are a handful of taller Osage orange trees and about 300-saplings we planted several years ago. These are some of the smaller trees in the foreground. The Osage orange is native to a small area in eastern Texas, southeastern Oklahoma, and southwestern Arkansas. This region was home to the Native American Osage Indian tribe hence the name.
It is said that the Osage Indians made hunting bows from the beautiful hard wood of this tree.
During the mid 19th century, the sharp-thorned trees were also planted as cattle-deterring hedges before the introduction of barbed wire in the 1870s. Afterwards, the Osage orange trees became an important source of fence posts. The Osage orange is also known as a Bois D’arc, a name that was given by French settlers meaning “bow-wood”.
This tree is among the tallest in my collection. It has at least 20-fruits growing on it – the largest amount we’ve ever had from one of the many trees planted here. The Osage is a small deciduous tree or large shrub, which can reach a mature size of up to 40-feet tall with an equal spread.
If you look closely, you can see some of the fruits.
Here are a couple more hiding among the many leaves. The wood of the Osage orange tree is extremely hard and durable.
The Osage orange produces a large, warty, inedible fruit that has a distinctive orange aroma.
The Osage orange is actually a dense cluster of hundreds of small fruits – many say it resembles the many lobes of a brain.
The branches are armed with stout, straight spines. When used as protective hedges, they were constructed by planting young Osage orange trees closely together.
The heavy, close-grained yellow-orange wood is very dense and is prized for making tool handles.
Here is the bark of a slightly more mature Osage orange tree. On older trunks the bark is orange-brown and furrowed.
The leaves are three to five inches long and about three-inches wide. They are thick, firm, dark green and pale green.
There is a line down the center of each leaf, with lines forming upside-down V-shapes extending from the center line to the edge of the leaf.
In the fall, the leaves turn bright yellow before they drop from the trees.
These are young Osage orange trees – about six or seven years old. They will grow with upwardly arching branches, forming low, rounded crowns. These trees must be regularly pruned to keep them in bounds.
Although these fruits are not edible to humans, squirrels relish the small seeds buried inside the pulp.
Here is an Osage orange cut in half showing the seeds inside. The pulpy fruit gives a bitter, sticky, milky sap, which has been found to repel insects.
Osage oranges should be grown in full sun on well-drained soil. This tough, native plant can withstand almost anything when established – heat, cold, wind, drought, poor soil, ice storms, and rot.
Here is a single Osage orange hanging low on the tree – these fruits eventually drop to the floor in late October.
Here are some gathered on a tray outside my Flower Room.
A few were brought indoors for my kitchen counter – not only will they deter the pesky insects that sneak into the room, but my guests love learning about these interesting fruits. Have you ever seen an Osage orange? Let me know in the comments section – I love hearing from all of you!
Osage Orange trees are advertised in plant catalogs as small to mid-sized, meaning they become 30 to 50 feet tall, with a 40-foot-wide crown at maturity.
It is said that in early American history, these thorny trees were planted along property lines as fences, keeping animals in and strangers out, and making prairie settlement possible. Osage Orange fence posts took root across the prairie and made thickets in ravines and farmsteads.
The many names that Maclura pomifera is known by include: Orange wood, bois-d’arc, bodark, bowwood, hedge-apple, mockorange, and live barbed wire.
The wood of this mulberry family member is not only strong enough to make hunting bows, it is the only tree that produces orange wood. The Lewis and Clark expedition noted finding it in St. Louis in 1804. Early settlers used the root bark to make a yellow dye.
Native to Arkansas, Oklahoma and eastern Texas, Maclura pomifera are now found in zones 4 to 9, from New England to southern Colorado. Some have naturalized rural areas in the Pacific Northwest (http://plants.usda.gov).
In their native range, small Osage Orange groves were found in bottom land where the soil was called bodark swamp, a common name for bois-d’arc. Usually they were in prairie, growing with oak, ash and mulberry. The largest specimens grew close to the Red River.
A 200-year-old Osage Orange tree, 60 feet tall and 90 feet wide, is listed in the National Register of Big Trees (www.americanforests.org).
In the spring, small green flowers are pollinated by wind and insects and the result is large green 4- to 6-inch fruit that is used in crafts and as insect repellent. Homeowners surround their home foundation with the fruit to repel insects.
This time of year, the ground under Osage Orange trees is littered with those brain-looking fruits. When they fall and bruise a milky juice comes out, blackening a spot. One writer said that being around an Osage Orange tree in the autumn is like experiencing falling broccoli.
When the fruit breaks open, livestock, birds and wild animals such as squirrels eat the fruit and spread the seed. Scientists say that 11,000 years ago the large fruit was eaten by mammoths, mastadons, giant sloths and glyptodonts.
Osage Orange does not produce useful wood for timber, pulp or utility poles, but despite its shortcomings it has been planted more than any other tree species in North America www.na.fs.fed.us).
The wood, bark and roots contain valuable extracts for food processing, fungicide, pesticides and dye-making. The heartwood is decay-resistant, disease-resistant and immune to termites. The branches were used by the Osage Indians to make clubs and bows. Today millions of Osage Orange fence posts are sold every year; and slices of the wood are used as garden step stones that take decades to disintegrate.
The trees add valuable shade and texture to the landscape with yellow fall color. Osage Orange trees are still planted all over the country and pruned as hedges. The branches that grow in full sun have thick, 1-inch-long sharp thorns. Twigs in the shaded areas of the tree are thorn-less, but the shade will eventually kill them.
Maclura pomifera grow and look their best in moist gardens and near creeks and ditches, but they can tolerate a year of drought because at maturity their roots spread 15 feet out and 8 feet deep. They are also resistant to deer, heat, road salt and air pollution over their normal 75-year lifespan.
Male, mostly thorn-less and fruitless, varieties include Witchita and Whiteshield. All varieties are cold hardy to zone 5. One source is Forest Farm (www.forestfarm.com).
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Growing Osage orange trees from seed
Make no mistake about it — News Leader readers always come up with some thought-provoking questions, including this inquiry from Nick M. of Staunton:
“This is a crazy question, but how do you plant an Osage orange tree? We have one at the edge of our backyard field, an old wiry thing that produces a prodigious amount of ‘oranges’ in late October and November, but I love it. At present, the fruit all goes to the landfill but I’d like to start some trees in the woods in back, maybe in a line.”
Osage orange trees (commonly called “hedge apples”) can be found in many an old fence row around the Shenandoah Valley. The wood is extremely strong; being so dense it resists rot. Insects find it nearly impenetrable. Native American tribes used the wood for making bows so durable they would be handed down from generation to generation. In fact, before the invention of barbed wire in the late 1800s, farmers planted Osage orange trees closely together in a line to act as a hedge and confine livestock. The young trees were aggressively pruned to promote thorny, brushy growth. Some local farmers still use Osage orange for fence posts.
Each mature Osage orange fruit contains as many as 200 seeds. Growing the trees is easy once you gain access to the seed. There are a couple of ways to do this:
1) Place several oranges on bare ground and leave them there all winter. Find a place that does not get snow, as this will insulate the fruit and prevent the freezing/thawing activity you are seeking. A screened porch works fine. Make sure squirrels cannot access this area, as they love the seeds. Come spring, the fruit will be mushy and falling apart. Dig out the seeds within and then plant them no more than an inch deep where you want the row of trees to grow. Spacing 3 to 4 feet apart will produce an excellent hedge in just a few years.
2) The second technique for getting to the seeds calls for placing several oranges in a bucket of water in late winter and soak until they start to get mushy. Prevent the water from freezing. When the fruit falls apart in your hand, proceed with instructions above.
You can also start seeds in pots. Transplant seedlings to their final destination in late spring.
Jeff Ishee has written more than 600 garden columns for the News Leader. Contact him at [email protected] radio.com