Wood Science 101 (19) - The North American Bow-Wood

Last week we reveled in the properties and history of a great European tree, the yew, with specific focus on the legendary long-bows wielded by the British archers of a thousand years ago. But did you know that there is an American equivalent, a tree with wood of unique properties that has been utilized for many, varied uses, including wood for the bows of Native Americans?

Well, there is...and I stumbled across one yesterday in Winchester, Virginia. If you're a country folk, you'll recognize it by its unmistakable fruit.

The Osage-orange, or bois d'arc tree (Maclura pomifera), bears this somewhat unearthly-looking fruit pod. Slightly larger and heavier than a softball, many a young lad has had horse-apple fights with their buddies that ended up with in a sticky mess in someone's hair.

Birds seem to love the Osage-orange, and have contributed to the spread of the tree across the land.  As I stumbled around a stack of roof trusses in front of the tree, several dozen doves that were roosting under the tree scurried away in a whistle of wings.That greenish fruit is actually a conglomeration of around three-hundred seeds in a fibrous, gelatinous casing. They smell faintly like a honeydew melon, and larger animals somehow find them tasty...hence, the moniker horse-apple. Unlike the deadly yew, though, these trees are only a threat to insects, and the horse-apples were used in olden times as insect repellents in fruit and vegetable cabinets.

Nothing straight on a bois d'arc tree. Click on the picture and you will see the horse apples still hanging.

I was glad to see another old bois d'arc (pronounced bo-dark in East Texan)...they're not too common in Pennsylvania and this one in Virginia was the first one I had seen in a long time. Running across it the week of Thanksgiving brought back some old memories of my youth in Texas, where it seemed every fence line contained at least one bois d'arc mixed in with the cedars, yaupon, and cottonwood. With those big old green apples, bois d'arc command your attention, and they fascinated me...but those apples are just part of this great tree's story.

Early American pioneers discovered that the Osage nation of native Americans, which were roughly centered at the time of the American migration of the mid-nineteeth century at the convergence of Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, had especially fine wooden implements, including their most feared tool, the bow. Bois d'arc (literally, wooden bow in French) became the moniker to the tree from applied by the early French explorers of the area, while to the English-speaking settlers, the tree was named Osage-orange by those who observed the Indians tanning their hides with the orange-colored tannins of the wood.
"Osage orange bow blanks and finished bows were prime items of barter among the tribes. One early report said a well balanced bow was worth a "comely young squaw" in trade. Another said that in the early 1800s the price of a good Osage orange bow was a horse and a blanket. Tribal wars were fought for possession of lands generously supplied with Osage orange trees.
So sought after was the Osage orange bow, it was used by Shawnee and Wyandotte Indians in Ohio and the Blackfoot Indians in Montana. The bows must have been traded over a distance of 2,000 miles.
Early French explorers came to associate the strong powerful bows with the Osage Indians and called the trees "bois d'arc" which means "wood of the bow." This French name was eventually pronounced "bodark," a name that continues to be used for Osage orange in some regions.
Indians had other uses for Osage orange. The stout wood was well suited for war clubs and tomahawk handles. The ridged and scaly bark of the trunk provided both a fiber for rope and tannin for making leather. Root tea was used to wash sore eyes. The roots and inner bark were used to make a light orange dye. Early pioneers adopted this dye for their homespun cloth and later it was used commercially to color the American forces' olive drab uniforms during World War I.
Pioneers found more uses. The wood's hardness and low shrinkage made it valuable for wagon wheel hubs and rims. Supposedly, the first chuck wagon ever built was made of Osage orange to withstand the terrible bumping of the Texas panhandle. Cattle yokes were fashioned from the many angled limbs.
Railroad ties, bridge pilings, insulator pins, telephone poles, treenails, street paving blocks, mine timber, house blocks (used instead of masonry foundations) and tool handles were all uses eventually added to the list. No doubt, some of the first telegraph messages sent west pulsed across parts of the Midwest on wires held aloft on Osage orange poles.
As early as 1806 President Thomas Jefferson referred to the Osage orange in a message to Congress. He had heard from British explorers of the Arkansas country about the tree's potential as a hedge plant, a potential soon to be realized."
- Jim W. Grace, The Enduring Osage-Orange, Missouri Department of Conservation 
You see, as useful as the tree was to our native populations and pioneers, the Osage-orange was soon to become the most-widely planted tree in American history for another, now-forgotten reason.
"It seems remarkable that a tree that produces no pulpwood, saw timber or utility poles has been planted more than any other species in North America. But in the 1800s, on the expansive prairies of a fertile new continent, before the invention of barbed wire, settlers needed fence. And Osage orange makes a great fence.
A single row of hedge trees planted a foot apart would yield a fence that was "horse high, bull-strong, and hog-tight" in 4 years. Some farmers would weave the already twisted and intertwined limbs of the young trees tightly together, a technique known as "plashing," for a more impenetrable barrier. Use of the Osage orange tree as hedge was so common throughout most of its introduced range that "hedge" became the tree's common name.
Few records exist about the extent of Osage orange hedge plantings in Missouri. In nearby Kansas, however, between 1865 and 1939, nearly 40,000 miles of Osage orange hedgerows were planted by private landowners. Prairie settlers in other states, including Missouri, also were planting thousands of miles of Osage orange hedge at this time.
Hedge nurseries sprang up to meet the burgeoning need for seeds and seedlings. Osage orange fruits, commonly called hedge balls or hedge apples, were covered with dirt and straw in the fall. In the spring, the seeds were easily separated from the rotten flesh of the fruit.
One hedge apple would yield about 300 seeds. One bushel of hedge apples in the fall - about 80 apples - would yield 24,000 seeds the following spring. The seeds were then direct-seeded into a prepared seedbed on the farm or planted at the nursery and sold as seedlings. Planting contractors were available to establish hedge rows for 37.5 cents per rod ($120 dollars per mile).
In the 1860s, the Osage orange market went wild. Prices jumped from $8 a bushel to $50 a bushel. In one year alone, 18,000 bushels of seeds were shipped to the northwest United States - enough seed to plant over 100,000 miles of Osage orange hedge! "Hedge mania," as one newspaper called it, was rampant.
A few scattered records give a glimpse of the intense planting period in Missouri: 1844 - Osage orange had been planted in Greene County; 1851 - the first Osage orange were planted in Holt County; 1852 - Osage orange hedges planted in Cass County proved successful; 1853 - Caldwell County: "In May 1853, Mr. Terrill had the hedge fence set out on the east side of his place. The seed for this hedge was brought. . . on horseback from Texas."
By 1879 Monroe County in northeast Missouri and Nodaway County in northwest Missouri each had over 2,000 miles of hedge rows, " . . . more than any other county in Kansas, Nebraska, or Iowa."
But in 1874, Osage orange met its match. A new invention, barbed wire, was now cheaper to use for fencing. Although the Osage orange planting storm had passed, the tree had been planted in all 48 contiguous states."
 - Jim W. Grace, The Enduring Osage-Orange, Missouri Department of Conservation 
Hedge rows, or early-American natural fencing. Interesting that a tree famous for it's bow-wood would be valuable as a hedge...another eerie similarity to its European bow tree, the yew.

There's another interesting story involving the Osage-orange, this time involving our fiery American patriot Patrick Henry. Henry, famous for this oratorical masterpiece...
"Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, Give me Liberty, or give me Death!"
...retired to a planter's life at his Red Hill, Virginia plantation and reached the end of his life on June 6, 1799. Upon his death, his attending physician was recorded to have rushed from the house and wept bitterly under a tree in front of the plantation house. This same tree is now recorded as being the largest Osage-orange in the country.

The U.S. largest Osage-orange is at Red Hill Plantation, Virginia.

Finally, though, we should touch on the really unique properties of the wood of Maclura pomifera. It is a heavy, durable wood, running about 54 pounds per dried cubic foot of wood at a specific gravity of 0.86. What makes it a great bow-wood is that the high modulus of rupture (MOR) with a relatively low modulus of elasticity (MOE). Which means, in laymen's terms, that it is pliable, not stiff, but very strong.

Now, Osage-orange is about 20% heavier than the yew, but it's ratio of MOR to MOE is nearly identical to yew. In an interesting article by Eric Meier of WoodDatabase.com, yew and Osage-orange have "bow indices" of 11.52 and 11.51, respectively, and this rating is exceeded by only the rosewoods (Dalbergia spp.) and muninga (Pterocarpus angolensis) of common trees in the world. So it's no wonder that yew and Osage-orange were the preferred bow-woods of their day on their respective continents.

And, like another of our popular interesting woods, the black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), it is extremely durable, and was used for fence posts that could stand fifty or more years in the ground.

So, that's an introduction to the Osage-orange, or bois d'arc tree and its wood. We'll leave this post, fittingly, with a picture of another seasonal use of the hedge apples...for Thanksgiving centerpieces.

There you go. Something to do while the turkey cooks, make yourself a horse-apple centerpiece.

And have a wonderful Thanksgiving while you're doing it. Go Wood.

Tip Amount


Anonymous said…
Are you in State College? Because you say that osage orange trees are rare in Pennsylvania, but they were pretty common where I grew up in Chester County. They grew along roadsides and other places that were probably once hedgerows in the recent presuburban past. We called them "monkey brains", and yes, throwing them at eachother was favorite mischief of boys and not a few girls as well. I guess that's just further evidence of the diversity of a state where fistfights can break out over the use of soda vs pop.
I did enjoy learning more about this oddball tree though. It seems obvious now that it is named for its orange wood, and not for any faint resemblance of its fruit to an unripened orange, which is what I had previously assumed. Next time you're in my present state of Virginia, you should visit the ones at Chatham Manor in Fredericksburg, underwhich were piled many amputated limbs during the civil war. ~Karen
Anonymous said…
One thing you did not mention are its current uses. Here in south east kansas there is an abundance of osage orange. The once small hedge rows have sprawled into towering tree lines. Many ranchers still use them for fence posts today. It is not at all uncommon to see a fence line of hedge posts that are 75-100 years old. They last an amazingly long time in the ground. It also burns at a high temperature. But pops a lot and throws embers. A large "hedge" log as they are called here, makes an excellent night burner. It also.makes beautiful furniture if you don't mind nearly destroying your tools milling it. I own 40 acres covered in these pesky trees. I am going to make an attempt at using osage orange for flooring.
Anonymous said…
Nice thorough blog. My grandfather had three large "bodark" around his home near White Rock Lake in Dallas. We just knew it as very hardwood with serious stickers on it - not something to climb. Later in life, I became a professional woodworker and stumbled on the bigger picture - hedgerows & bows and the interesting nomenclature. I turned a mallet from my grandfather's trees 30 years ago - it's only slightly worn after all these years. Turns a very dark orange on the outside after a while, but if you cut it open it is still neon orange in there - maybe try some UV finish on it. Under used these days because it is so hard and doesn't make for long boards. However, with power tools and turning it's great - I hope more woodworkers give it a try.

David Orth

People are reading....

Going Wood with Hannah Barron

Real Firewood Stacking

Great Designs in Wood (74) - The Olde Oaken Barrel

Who Says Go Wood is Boring?

Holy Wood

Best of Logging 2018

Timber Glory Years in Minnesota

Don't Fence Me In

Let the Buyer Beware

From the Sawyer's Perspective: Sawing Hardwood Logs