Wood of the Month:
Osage Orange Made Its Name as Bow Wood

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

Maclura pomifera of the Family Moraceae

Osage orange, bois d'arc, bodark, bowdark, bow wood, hedge apple, mock orange, prairie hedgeplant, yellowwood, Osage

Can grow as tall as 60 feet with an average weight of 48.22 pounds per cubic foot.

Close-grained wood similar to locust. Very hard, heavy, strong, resilient. Good turnery wood. Logs are usually 6 to 8 feet long and 12 to 16 inches in diameter.

Osage Orange is a deciduous tree that grows in the southern and central United States. Its wood is close-grained and similar to locust, and its primary assets are its strength and resilience - features which led to its early use by local Indians.

What's In a Name?
The trees originally grew in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, and the tree takes its name and its identity from its early use for making archery bows and war clubs by the Osage Indians, who occupied the area. In addition to lending their name to the tree, the Osage also have a river in the area where they made permanent camps named after them.

According to Donald Culross Peattie, author of the book A Natural History of Western Trees, the early French explorers called it bois d'arc, which means bow wood, and somewhere along the line the wood also picked up the name Bowdark.

Peattie cites several sources as to the excellence of the wood for bows and war clubs and its value to neighboring tribes: "The reputation of the Osage's own bow wood spread widely among the Plains Indians." Peattie said that it is documented that the Montana Blackfeet had "prized bows of Osage orange, which they obtained by barter" as did the Kiowas, who "carried superb bows of bois d'arc, ornamented with brass nails, silver plates, and wampum beads."

The bark of the Osage orange yields a substance used to tan leather as well as a yellow dye, but the "orange" in its name refers to its very distinctive greenish-yellow fruit that loosely resembles an orange in shape and texture, but is, in fact, neither orange in color nor edible.

Durability a Key Asset
Peattie said the wood made exceptional railroad ties back in the 1870s. His research showed that it proved much more durable than the ties made from oak, chestnut and catalpa, which showed wear after two or three years. The Osage orange ties, checked after 21 years, were as good as when they were cut.

Osage orange was also a popular wood for pavement blocks and wheel stock. "The first chuckwagon ever built, according to a well-founded tradition, was that invented by Charles Goodnight (a famous Texan cattleman) and it was built of seasoned bois d'arc, in order to withstand the terrible usage of bumping over the far-flung Goodnight empire that covered much of the Panhandle in early days," Peattie said.

A use for the wood that continues today is as a hedge plant. The trees were transplanted to the southern states in the early 1900s, according to Peattie, for use as a natural hedge. Peattie said it excels at that use because it grows thick-set (a gardening term) with zig-zag branchlets to the ground and scattered thorns, and is hardy in extreme weather, such as drought, heat and wind. It grows easily and quickly from seedlings but never gets so high that it will shade nearby crops. Peattie adds that it qualifies for a hedge plant because it is "horse-high, bull-strong and pig tight."

In Fine Hardwoods Selectorama, written by Fine Hardwoods/American Walnut Assn. Executive Director Larry Frye, Osage orange is described as a very close-grained wood somewhat like locust that is very hard, heavy, strong and resilient. Its uses include wheels, archery bows, insulator pins, sucker-rod guides, dyewood, turnings and decorative novelties. Frye said it is seldom cut into lumber or veneer.

Mulberry Look-Alike
Cedarburg, WI, furniture designer/craftsman Charles Radtke uses Osage orange and mulberry, a wood it closely resembles, in some of his custom pieces. "Osage orange is a very graphic wood, it has a strong grain pattern," said Radtke. "Maple, for example, doesn't have a strong pattern, except for tiger maple. Mahogany does. I don't use much Osage orange. In the past I have used it to make handles and for panel stock and also in mortise and tenon door frames. It is very similar to mulberry, which I probably use more of. Osage orange is a vibrant yellow originally but it mellows to a honey tan."

People May Like It, But Bugs Do Not
The fruit of the tree has also been found to be a natural cockroach repellent, due to its strong cedar-like aroma that the bugs dislike.

A single piece of the fruit in a room will drive the bugs away, according to Peattie, and a distillate of the fruit has been developed that is stronger and even more effective in insect control.

Osage orange is unique in that it is monotypic, a genus with only one species, (Maclura pomifera) although at one time there were many species of Maclura. It is a member of the Breadfruit family.


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