FROM the early days of exploration and pioneer settlement in the Midwest to the present, the Osage orange has been a useful tree. The early French explorers called the tree bois d'arc, because the Osage Indians used its strong, flexible wood for bows. Railroad companies cut the wood for lasting crossties, and for a time the tree faced extinction. Before the invention of barbed wire, however, settlers saved the tree by using it to make hedgerows. These ``natural fences'' were protection against nomadic cattle and the increasing herds of stock owners.
Today in parts of Missouri, Kansas, Illinois, Nebraska, and Texas, Osage orange hedges that were planted in the middle of the 19th century still survive. The plant provided a thorny growth within four or five years that was said to be ``pig tight, horse high, and bull strong.''
In the early 1850s, the South supplied the prairie states with plants and seed, which sold for from $8 to $50 a bushel. But in the 1870s the manufacture and sale of barbed wire became such a big business, it replaced most bois d'arc plantings.
Osage orange (Madura promifera) is a genus with only one species. It can grow to a height of 60 feet. The trunk divides into several large limbs. Curved branches, which bear short, thick spines, form a rounded top. The lower branches droop to the ground. The bark is furrowed and orange brown. When leaves unfold in early spring, clusters of light-green male and female flowers appear on separate trees. After fertilization, the female flower becomes a fleshy fruit three inches or more in diameter. What appears to be a warty orange is a compact and rounded cluster of firm drupelets.
Present usefulness of the Osage orange may be attributed to perceptive Texas nurserymen who have developed a fruitless and relatively thornless tree. An attractive addition to landscaping, it is now being grown in parks and gardens. The growing interest in native plants encourages cultivation of the beautiful bois d'arc.