Monday, October 20, 2014
Each year Autumn presents Osage oranges that have fully ripened to their signature color and thus their common name. It is a member of the Mulberry family and depending upon locale it may be referred to as hedge apple, horse apple, monkey ball, bodark or bois d'arc. In spite of its terrible reputation as invasive it was extremely important in the rise of Native American culture in the United States.
It was first mentioned to an English speaking audience in a letter from Scottish explorer William Dunbar in 1804. Following his description Meriwether Lewis sent cuttings to President Jefferson and the largest existing tree resides on a farm adjacent to Jefferson‘s estate in Virginia. Lewis' letter indicates the trees were donated by a French gentleman Pierre Choteau, who resided in the Osage Nation where the Mississippi and Ouachita Rivers met. The name bois d'arc, or "bow-wood", was given by French settlers who noted the wood was utilized for Native war clubs and bow-making. This wood was prized among Native Americans for bows as it was unusually strong, flexible and durable… tribal members would travel hundreds of miles to find or purchase it from other tribes. In by 1890 a horse and a blanket were the standard price of a bow made of Bodark.
Many historians believe the rise of the advanced Spiroan Mississippi culture was due to the high value this wood had to Native Americans. The now extinct Spiroan tribe controlled the land in which these trees grew and archaeologist have discovered remarkable mounds that revealed the advancement of their society. Between 800 and 1400 the Spiro people created a powerful religious and political center that thrived along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Spiro (Oklahoma) is considered the western-most outpost of Mississippian culture and the objects discovered there among the most sophisticated pre-Columbian artifacts in all of North America.
Bodark makes remarkable fence posts for its lack of enemies… termites find it distasteful and it is not prone to fungus. Before the invention of barbed wire in the 1880's thousands of miles of ‘fence’ was constructed by planting young Osage Orange trees closely together in a line. Saplings were pruned to promote bushy growth to create a ‘horse high, bull strong and hog tight’ fence row made from Osage Orange and for this purpose it was ideal.
In 1934 Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated his Great Plains Shelter Belt Program to prevent soil erosion. By 1942 over 30,000 shelterbelts containing 220 million trees that stretched for 18,600 miles had been planted. Bodark must be carefully pruned as each shoot will grow up to six feet a season and for this reason it has become invasive.