Osage Orange Tree

“Farmers on the Great Plains in the 1850s called them "horse-apples" or, more commonly, "hedge-apples." When planted close together and regularly pruned, their thorny interlocking branches create natural windbreaks, dust-catchers, and impenetrable boundary fences that are guaranteed "bull strong, hog tight, and horse high"--but not so high as to shade out too many crops. On the other hand, relieved from competition and placed in rich soil … they reach up to 50 feet or more, spreading out their crowns to cast a deep but airy shade.

Partly because of its density, it is one of the most durable woods in North America. When hedge-apples gave way to maintenance-free barbed wire fences in the 1870s and 80s the tough tree's rot-proof and mostly insect-proof stems made fence posts that could outlast the wire. Osage orange stems even served briefly as railroad ties, although to a limited extent, owing to the difficulty of finding enough long, straight logs. Today it is apparent that Osage orange will even tolerate road-salt and urban air pollution.

When planted, nursed, and pruned to keep them in line, Osage oranges produce a thorny, tangled thicket of tough and durable little trees that made a windbreak and hedgerow up to 20 feet high that was impenetrable by man and beast alike. It was cultivated so widely throughout the country during the 19th century that it is now found in all but ten of the lower 48 states. Botanists today can only speculate that its original habitat was limited to southwestern Arkansas, southeastern Oklahoma, and northern Texas.

The proper noun is said to be a phonetic transliteration of the tribe's Indian name, Wazhazhe, via Canadian French traders into "Osage," from the Indian tribe of the same name. According to tribal legend, the origin of the tribe in the lowest of the four upper regions of the underworld resulted from the combination of two clans, the Tsishu, or peace people who lived on roots, and the Wazhazhe, or war people who lived on animals, which they killed with arrows shot from bows made of the strong, flexible wood of this tree.”


From Discovering Lewis & Clark™, http://www.lewis-clark.org
© 1998-2008 VIAs Inc.

©2008 by The Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation, Washburn, North Dakota. Journal excerpts are from The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, edited by Gary E. Moulton 13 vols.(Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983–2001)