The Nature of Things: Osage-orange tree has flourished for centuries with its many uses
"Monkey brains!" the kids exclaimed as we reached the old dirt road. I was leading an outdoor school program, and it took me a moment to realize the students were referring to the big, lumpy fruit fallen from the trees lining the road.
I had learned several names for these trees -- Osage-orange, hedge apple and Maclura pomifera -- but the students' descriptor was far better. Ever since that field trip 30-some years ago, I've taken a keen interest in the tree with brains.
The Osage-orange tree is a relic of the past. It flourished in the time when mastodons, sloths, and saber-toothed cats roamed the land.
The softball sized fruit evolved with these prehistoric herbivores in the Ice Age landscape. It's likely that the giant herbivores browsed on Osage-orange leaves and ate the fruit.
Ice Age creatures have come and gone, but the Osage-orange tree remains. Today's animals are disinterested in the globose fruit. Squirrels may tear them apart and eat the seeds, but most of the "monkey brains" fall to the ground, decompose, and generally make a mess.
The Osage-orange tree is a botanical oddity today, the only living member of its genus. It persisted through the millennia and made its home in what we now call the Red River Basin of Texas and Oklahoma. Native Americans of the Caddo and Osage Nations have crafted bows from the branches of the Osage-orange tree for many centuries.
French explorers in the 18th century called the tree "bois d'arc," or wood of the bow. The name "bodark" is still used today.
The strength and flexibility of Osage-orange wood makes it well-suited for bows.
At the time of European contact, the bows made in the Red River Valley were superior to all others. The tree's reputation spread far and wide, and its wood became a valuable trade item.
Explorer Meriwether Lewis reported to Thomas Jefferson in 1804 that the American Indians so "esteem the wood of this tree for the purpose of making their bows, that they travel many hundred miles in quest of it."
A well-crafted Osage-orange bow was worth "a horse and a blanket" in the 1800s.
Bois d'arc has never fallen out of favor among archers. "Many modern bowyers (bow makers) still turn to Osage-orange to keep the tradition alive," wrote Robert J. Settich in Woodcraft magazine.
Strength and flexibility, the very qualities that make it superlative for bows, also made it great for wagon wheels.
Osage-orange wheels could bear heavy loads; it bent easily enough to create wheel rims, and it absorbed shock without breaking.
"Those properties," explained Dave Wayman in Mother Earth News, "added to the wood's ability to resist the effects of soil and moisture, made for high-mileage wheel rims."
Resistance to rot was an important feature. Fence posts made from Osage-orange are said to last a hundred or more years. But why bother cutting and splitting the wood for posts when the entire tree can be used as a fence?
Frontier fencing was critical in the 19th century. Farmers discovered that when planted in a row, Osage-orange trees make an impenetrable hedge. Its thorny, intertwined branches and twisted trunks proved just the thing to keep livestock in place.
With regular pruning, an Osage-orange fence was "horse-high, bull-strong and pig-tight," as the old-timers said. Promoted by the likes of Illinoisans Jonathan Baldwin Turner and Dr. John Kennicott, Osage-orange was used for thousands of miles of natural fencing, crisscrossing the frontier.
Another famous Illinoisan, Joseph Glidden of DeKalb, patented barbed wire in 1874, and the use of Osage-orange for fencing declined. Many miles of Osage-orange hedges remained, however, and these proved to be important windbreaks and shelterbelts.
After the disastrous Dust Bowl in the 1930s, Osage-orange enjoyed a bit of a comeback, as green shelterbelts diminished soil erosion caused by ferocious prairie winds.
The Osage-orange is a tree that keeps on giving. Firewood from this species ranks highest in BTUs, beating oak, hickory, and locust. It is, hands down, the hottest-burning wood we have. Some might say too hot. A load of pure Osage-orange can damage wood stoves.
To avoid a visit from the fire department, use only one Osage-orange log mixed with logs of other hardwoods in your fireplace or wood stove.
Freshly cut Osage-orange wood is a vibrant yellow. The color mellows into a rich brown with age. Woodworkers use it for musical instruments, bowls, knife handles and other specialty items.
The roots and bark yield a yellow dye.
In addition to its traditional use as a dye in Native American cultures, Osage-orange was also used to make khaki-colored uniforms in World War I.
Osage-orange is not planted much anymore, and some consider it a nuisance. There are still some on farms in northern Illinois.
When I see those monkey brains littering the ground, I imagine prehistoric mastodons feasting on the fruit, or Indigenous hunters wielding bows made of its wood. I envision wagon wheels and fence row, firewood and khaki fabric.
There's a lot of history in this species. Osage-orange, for all its worth, is a tree of the ages.
• Valerie Blaine is a naturalist in Kane County. You may reach her by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org