Listen to the podcast of this article at The Incredible Osage Orange
The Osage Orange is a thorny dioecious tree that produces grapefruit-sized inedible, easily recognizable fruits. Common names are hedge apple, bow wood, bois d’arc (bodark), horse apple, mock orange, and even monkey brains, among others.
The history of this tree is absolutely fascinating. According to many sources, the tree was originally native to only a relatively small area of the United States which the Osage Tribe called home. Sources tend to disagree slightly, but the commonly accepted native area is thought to be the Red River drainage, encompassing parts of Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. The Osage Indians used the wood for things like bows and handles and likely traded the wood with other tribes. It is still prized today as an amazing wood with excellent elasticity and strength.
According to several sources, in 1804, Lewis and Clark sent cuttings of Osage Orange back to Thomas Jefferson to propagate. By 1836, the Osage Orange was becoming extremely popular as an ornamental tree, for use in hedgerows, and the wood was used for just about everything you can think of. The Osage Orange even led directly to the invention of barbed wire.
Quoting Douglas Main’s article:
The first “hedge mania” began around 1850. At that time, fencing was expensive and difficult to maintain. Feral hogs were an even worse plague then, compared to today. But Osage orange hedges—said to be “horse high, hog tight, and bull strong,” as the saying went—offered a solution. Jonathan Turner, a professor who promoted use of the plant in Illinois and beyond, was convinced that “God designed Osage Orange especially for the purpose of fencing the prairies.” …
By 1869, around 60,000 miles of Osage orange hedges had been planted in the Midwest and South. Some consider Osage orange to be as important as the railroad, steel plow, and windmill for the settlement of the Midwest by Europeans, according to Michael Ferro, a researcher at Clemson University who wrote a scientific paper about the biology and history of the tree.
After barbed wire fencing became widely available in the 1880s, the use of Osage orange hedges declined, but the tree remained in use for its wood. Its popularity increased again following the Dust Bowl and Great Depression of the 1930s. President Franklin D. Roosevelt started an initiative, called the Great Plains Shelterbelt, to create windbreaks and protect farms in the Great Plains. Osage orange was the most popular tree used.
The Osage Orange has been planted in all 48 contiguous states and southeastern Canada. It “has been planted in greater numbers than almost any other tree species in North America” (Burton).
The most interesting part about the Osage Orange that I discovered was not mentioned in most of the articles or blog posts I read online. The beautiful yellow heartwood of the Osage Orange can be used as a dye. Soaking the sawdust or wood chips in water and heating extracts a large amount of tannins and a striking yellow dye that is useful on a variety of fibers. No mordant is needed to set the yellow color, but adding a mordant can change the outcome of the dye. Using iron, for example, yields a lovely moss green.
In fact, before World War I, when obtaining the products for yellow dyes became nearly impossible (as the USA got most of this material from Germany and Mexico), the United States government began encouraging experiments with the Osage Orange. Once a reproducible dye process was discovered, the government used Osage Orange to dye the uniforms for soldiers.
This is just part of the incredible history of the Osage Orange. I find it all absolutely fascinating. We have been fighting these trees on our property for years. The thorns are incredibly painful when you get one shoved up under your thumbnail – I now wear leather gloves when working with or near them. The trees are also difficult to kill. There is one in our field that just keeps coming back.
While on a search for more forgeable natural plant dyes, I stumbled across information about the Osage Orange. My husband and I immediately went out to the woods to collect some for the dye pot.
I couldn’t wait to get some Osage Orange simmering. I added some sawdust and slices to a pot of water and heated it for an hour or so, then let it soak overnight. I then tested the dye with some wool yarn. The yellow color was gorgeous. I then added some ferrous sulfate heptahydrate to the dye pot and the dye bath immediately changed color. I re-dipped the yarn and got a nice mossy green. I will be doing more experiments with this incredible tree soon.
Main, Douglas. The Odd History of the Osage Orange Tree. National Geographic. 23 November 2021. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/hedge-apple-osage-orange-ghost-of-evolution accessed 31 October 2022.
Boggs, Joe. Tree of the Week: Osage-Orange (Maclura pomifera, family Moreaceae (mulberry family)). 26 October 2016. https://bygl.osu.edu/node/625. Accessed 31 October 2022.
Burton, J. D. Maclura pomifera (Raf.) Schneid. Osage-Orange. Moraceae — Mulberry family. https://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/pubs/misc/ag_654/volume_2/maclura/pomifera.htm. Accessed 31 October 2022.
The Osage Orange. Carlisle Weekly Herald. Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Thu, May 26, 1836, Page 1. newspapers.com.
Oklahoma Will Furnish Color. Muskogee County Democrat. Muskogee, Oklahoma. Thu, Oct 19, 1916, Page 5. newspapers.com.