The Fascinating Osage Orange ‘Fence’ Tree

This is from the root of an Osage Orange. It is a fascinating tree that seems to have escaped extinction. Although related to the Mulberry, the Osage Orange is the only species of its genus in the family Moraceae. The roots have had a year to dry out and the small one [at the end of this post] is able to slid out of the encasement. I re-wet the root trying to bring back it’s vibrant orange, but it has lost much of it’s color since it was dug up a year ago. When dry, it is possible to peel off the tissue-paper like protective layer around it’s roots.

The fruit is fascinating in it’s other-worldly appearance. The kids are drawn to it every time they are at the farm. I have no desire to even try to eat it, but apparently something in my forest is having a go at it. I’ve seen them driven over before, but here it appears that wildlife has developed a taste for it. There are four such ‘Horse Apples’ torn up with in a few feet of each other over a four-week span.

The Native American Osage Indians in the area the tree was discovered were the inspiration for the naming of the Osage Orange. As a kid I always assumed the name came from the orange sized fruit that had a bumpy ‘orange peel’ texture. Until I brought this fruit home I didn’t even notice the slight citrus scent. However, no where can I find the root color discussed. It was the basement digging project which exposed these beautiful orange roots. Just guessing here, but this might be where the dye value of the Osage Orange lies.

Hedge Apples, Horse Apples, Bowwood, Thorny Tree or Osage Orange; regardless of the name, this captivating tree is described as ‘picturesque’ instead of beautiful. It’s limbs are dark and dramatic against snowfall. In the heavy shade of summer they create a bit of mystery. Our small farm is blessed with many fully mature Osage Orange trees that border the ravine running down the center of the property. Thousands of miles of Osage Orange were planted in the early 1800’s as a ‘living fence’ around properties to help manage livestock wandering off. By 1874 barbed wire had become king of fencing….ironically often hung on Osage Orange fence posts.

Not only do the branches provide some very large, blunt thorns to discourage a way-ward cow, but the branches tend to grow low near the ground where that would be the most benefit. These thorns are directly responsible for the development of barbed wire…an improvement on nature I suppose. The branches are surprisingly springy and hard to break off which we discovered while trying to dig a basement near an Osage. This springiness is one of the reasons it is also known as
‘bow wood’ because the tree was known to produce very powerful and resilient bows for archery.

This hardy wood is full of irritating sap that makes it hard on the skin but fantastic for repealing insects. The wood is believed to be one of the best available for fence posts because of it’s natural resistance to pests and rot. Supposedly it is possible to cut new growth off them every five years for these fence posts.

This very large, heavy fence post at the corner of the field shows no sign of rot even though the hardware attached to it is obviously many decades old. It was not milled at all and has the limb nubs and taper of a young tree cut off near the ground. It’s black appearance (once the rain washed the dirt away) and texture suggests it is an Osage Orange.

If you want to do a deep dive on the Osage Orange it doesn’t get much more authoritative than the US Forrest Service. This is the type of tree that deserves its own book…and luckily someone wrote just such a book. If you want to plant your own, you can get seeds here.

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