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The ornery Osage orange.

Only two things about Osage-orange trees are straight-their thorns and the fencerows they so often form. Those fencerows, one of the more visible signs of humanity's long use of the Osage-orange, seem pretty tame. But the trees themselves are anything but tame. A tougher, more tangled, thornier bundle of arboreal cantankerousness would be hard to find. I know. My own Osage-orange education began long ago.

When I was about 16, my parents bought the farm adjacent to the one where I grew up. The neighboring farm had been heavily grazed for years with little pasture maintenance, and as a result was covered with the two things that survived: tall fescue and Osage-orange, known locally as hedge. Unfortunately, the hedge trees were not in nice straight fencerows. Scattered over acres and acres of pasture were Osage-orange trees of all sizes.

"This farm will make you money, son," my father said as we looked out over the rolling fields.

My heart jumped. I began seeing my own herd of cattle grazing and a new tractor and . . .

Before I had time to become a millionaire rancher right then and there, he continued.

"You can earn some money for college by clearing that brush and cutting the fence posts out of an that hedge."

The word abrupt is inadequate to describe my change in feelings. I had cut enough hedge posts to know how difficult and frustrating the job can be. My expression must have become a scowl as I looked out over the dense thickets of thorny limbs. Maybe college could wait.

Seeing my distress, my father tried to cheer me up. "Don't worry,- he said, "I'll furnish the chainsaw."

For years after that, when other guys were showing up at school on winter Mondays with tales of weekend travels and parties, I was limping in with a scratched face and puncture wounds in my legs. Looking for sympathy among my classmates was useless. Few of them had ever had the opportunity' to go one-on-one with a hedge thicket. They didn't realize the tenacity of the tree's defense.

To saw a post out of a hedge tree requires that first you get to the trunk. To the beginner, this is a very educational experience. Most hedge trees have limbs hanging low to the ground that have to be sawed off first. These are small, tough limbs that jump and jerk when touched with a chainsaw. Then the area surrounding the trunk usually supports a clump or two of multi-flora rose or prickly ash, or some other "exclusionary herb. "

When you finally arrive at the tree, it's usually two or more trunks, grown together in various inseparable ways with the lower limbs of one snagged in the limbs of the other. Saw off one trunk at its base, and nothing falls over. The severed trunk just eases straight down and pinches the saw bar with a few hundred pounds of heavy, thorny wood.

When the whole mess is finally felled, assuming it doesn't hang in a nearby tree, it still remains intertwined. The only difference is that now many of the limbs that have to be cut are spring-loaded. They wait to jump at you or pinch the saw. Usually you can't tell which until they are cut.

Survivors of a few afternoons of cutting hedge soon develop methods to handle most of these difficulties. (I'm sure brain surgery is tough the first few times too.) In any case, both those who return for more and those who retire from hedge-post cutting forever will come away with new respect for the tree.

Osage-orange, the hedge of my youth, has a number of remarkable attributes, not the least of which are its numerous stiff, curving branches covered with short, sharp, stout thorns. The impenetrable barrier formed by the trees was quickly recognized and used by early prairie settlers. They planted Osage-orange as living fence throughout the central and eastern U.S. before the invention of barbed wire.

The name Osage-orange derives from several sources. The original range of the tree was similar to that of the Osage Indians in southwest Missouri and parts of Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. The resemblance of the fruit to an orange is said to be cause for the second part of the name. The fruit actually looks more like a grapefruit -and is commonly called a hedge-apple. The heartwood of the tree is a deep yellow-orange. The species (Maclura pomifera) goes by other names in its original range. Early French trappers called the tree bois-d'arc (bodark or bowwood) after they observed the plains Indians using the resilient wood for bows. It is said that in Arkansas in the early 1800s the price of a good Osage-orange bow was a horse and a blanket.

Julian A. Steyermark reports in the Flora of Missouri that the name bois-d'arc eventually came to denote the hills of southern Missouri and Arkansas, and this name gradually became Ozark.

In addition to using the wood for bow staves, the Indians used the inner bark to make rope, and the outer bark yielded tannin for leather making. Wood chips and roots were used to make a yellow dye.

The tough Osage-orange has been used for wagon axles and tongues as well as railroad ties. Very little dimension lumber was cut from it, however, until carbide saw blades were developed. The wood was too tough. Even now, Osage-orange lumber or furniture is a rarity.

Osage-orange fencerows and thickets provide significant wildlife habitat in many areas where little other hard cover exists. Their dense, sprawling canopy provides a diverse year-round habitat for many species. Their value increases if the grazing pressure under them is not heavy. Even in overgrazed situations, they are far better than nothing. In the form of long hedgerows, the cover they provide makes many nearby fields available to animals that never range far from cover. People who regularly look for wildlife gravitate toward these hedgerows. And when the snow blows, Osage-orange does not bow.

A few mammals, especially the fox squirrel, eat the fruit. The squirrel usually disassembles the hedge-apple at the base of the tree, leaving a growing midden of little yellow pieces behind.

It seems ironic that the trees that once served as thousands of miles of living fence continue to yield fence posts as their main product for humans. They have truly been adapted to the times.

Most of those old gnarly hedge fencerows have now been cut or bulldozed (unfortunately, many would say), and replaced with wire fences. But the odds are that in most of the Midwest at least, the corner posts of any new fence will be Osage-orange.

Osage-orange is one of the heaviest woods in North America. It also rates near the top for resistance to weathering. Many Osage-orange posts that were sound when they were put in the ground are still standing after 50 years. The posts age gracefully. After a couple of years, the bark begins to peel and fall. A few more years and the sapwood, the light outer layer of wood, begins to decay and soften. Eventually the orange heart of the post is all that remains standing, and stand it will. If a post does fail early, it is not uncommon to hear an old-timer forgive it with . . . "that post was just cut under the wrong sign of the moon."

It is not fine art, but when I do a good job of setting corner posts-two 12-inch-diameter Osage-orange set four feet in the ground, braced with a steel pipe, and tied tightly together with No. 9 wire-I would like to sign the work. I envision the next generation coming upon them and saying, "Well, these corner posts are still strong and tight. Let's just put on new wire, and this fence will be fine.'

Osage-orange posts today cost in the neighborhood of $3 for a four-inch-diameter line post seven feet long to $10 for a seven-inch, nine-foot corner post. Larger ones-the kind you set with immortality in mind-naturally cost more.

I know. I'm still cutting posts from that same patch of Osage-orange that "helped" me through college. Of course, there are lots of folks who have cut a hundred times more Osage-orange posts than I have. There are even some old-timers who have felled a mile or two with only an ax. But I've waded into thorny Osage-orange thickets enough times to appreciate the task. I've built enough new fence to admire the tree's strength. And I've fixed enough old fence to marvel at the wood's resilience.

In fact, the more I work with hedge, the more I admire it. I'll keep cutting a little for use, but I'm leaving quite a bit too-for wildlife, for future use, and just for the future. I've got a little boy now, and though it may seem a little cruel, he will need college money someday.

I'll provide the chainsaw.
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Title Annotation:tree profile
Author:Grace, Jim W.
Publication:American Forests
Date:Nov 1, 1990
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