Occasionally I walk around on an old farm that was last cultivated during World War II. Along one of the old stonerows there grows a row of contorted, tangled, short trees – a row of Osage-orange trees.
Osage-orange isn’t native to Pennsylvania; historically it was only found in southern Arkansas, southern Oklahoma and northeastern Texas. However, the species was once widely planted as a hedge or living fence. The small branches usually have one-inch long, sharp thorns that deter passage by livestock – and humans. The wood is also resistant to decay and very hard, so trees were also planted as a source of fenceposts.
The tree’s most common name refers to its fruit which, although inedible, somewhat resembles an orange in appearance.
But this is a tree of many names: hedge apple (since it was planted as a hedge and, to people who had never seen an orange, the green fruit was thought to resemble an apple), horse apple (since horses are one of the few animals that eat the fruit), bois d'arc (the wood was a favorite of Native Americans for making bows), and bodoc and bodark (derived from the French bois d’arc).
There is some thought that the tree was more widespread in the distant past and that the large mammals, which became extinct at about the same time as humans arrived in North America, fed on the tree’s fruit and thus dispersed the seeds.
The leaves are rather plain with smooth edges, glossy dark green in summer, turning a drab pale yellow in the fall.
In all my wandering in northcentral Pennsylvania I’ve only found a few locations where Osage-orange grows, and those all appeared to be planted trees. From one of those spots, years ago I picked up a dead limb and used that to fashion the tuning pegs for a dulcimer that I made for my wife. The wood is beautiful, orange with a yellow cast when fresh cut, darkening to a rich dark brown with age – but it’s so hard that it rapidly dulls ordinary steel tools.