Plant of the Week: October 11, 2018
My father-in-law was a kind, hard-working farmer. He hated this tree with his every breath. He fought it. He dealt with it. Sometimes he won. More often than not, he lost. This tree was his enemy.
Chester Noecker was my friend. He farmed several hundred beautiful acres 30 miles south of Columbus, Ohio. I never heard him swear. Then again, I was never in the field alongside him when he got slapped in the face by one of those thorny branches on a cold winter morning. He had nothing kind to say about this tree that’s native over almost all of eastern America.
Up in Chester’s country, it was “horse apple,” “hedge apple,” or more simply stated, just “hedge.” You’d hear people call it “Osage orange,” and somewhere along the line, we Texans started speaking French. We called it “bois d’arc” (wood of the bow). Osage Indians made bows from its wood, and that pretty well explains all of its names.
Bois d’arc grows along riverbanks, rocky slopes and hillside meadows. Most commonly, you’ll see it growing in old fencerows, sometimes planted on purpose (perhaps the origin of the name “hedge”), and sometimes the result of chance seedlings.
One thing’s for sure: you will see this tree the next time that you drive around Texas – it’s scattered almost everywhere. And, the other thing that’s almost as certain: you will not see this tree the next time you stop by a local nursery. It doesn’t transplant easily, and they certainly don’t obligate valuable growing space to it.
Did you know …
Bois d’arc wood is extremely resistant to rotting. That’s why it was used by our great-grandparents as leveling blocks for their pier-and-beam houses. You could cut it off into short sections of stout trunk and use them to support an entire house, its belongings and family held safely up off the cold ground. Those old blocks are still out there, carrying their loads, 75 and 100 years later.
By the same token, bois d’arc was also used by early farmers for fence posts – it wouldn’t rot. The next time you see a gnarly antique rural fence, those crooked old posts are probably bois d’arc. (If they’re straight, they’re probably redcedar.)
Bois d’arc wood (as in the timber of the tree) is bright yellow. It browns (oxidizes) as it ages, and that’s why the old blocks and posts will have chocolate-colored and highly fissured surfaces. But, when you cut into their centers, they will still be rich, golden-yellow.
That wood is hard. So hard that arborists will cringe and chain saws will dull. So hard that stump-grinders will groan. But, that’s all part of its notoriety.
Bois d’arc wood is filled with oils that spark when ignited. That’s exciting outdoors in campfires, but it’s not the best plan when you’re sitting on the floor of the den, “singing carols by an open fire.” It’s like bringing real-life sparklers onto your carpet. It burns hot, so you won’t be able to close in the sparks by shutting glass fireplace doors. So, your considered decision may be that you don’t bring bois d’arc wood in to the fireplace.
The large and heavy fruit of bois d’arcs look like green oranges. Then, sometime in mid-fall, they turn yellow and fall to the ground. They’re certainly not edible, at least not by humans. Oh, squirrels will gnaw on them and spit the shards out over the course of the summertime, but polite animals mostly leave them alone. Little boys, by comparison, pick them up to hurl at their buddies (also not a good plan), and that’s when they discover that these harmless looking fruit are actually big buckets of goo. White, sticky, sappy goo.
So now to my sales pitch. Bois d’arc (Maclura pomifera) is one of our more dependable Texas natives. Caterpillars will occasionally chew into its leaves, but nothing much kills it. Bois d’arcs do eventually die, but no one’s ever quite sure why. Perhaps it’s the loneliness of being excluded from modern society. Maybe they just get bored.
This large-leafed, coarsely textured tree actually makes an interesting statement in urban landscaping. As with its fellow Texan, the mesquite, bois d’arc brings rugged character to its surroundings. Root flares are exposed by decades of growth and soil erosion. Mistletoe-infested branches become misshapen, even grotesque. And, the tree keeps on living.
Would I ever plant a bois d’arc in my own landscape? Perhaps not. But, would I leave one that was already there when I bought my rural home site almost 50 years ago? Yes, and I did. Many times over.
A footnote to our story: Thornless, fruitless selections are available, occasionally in retail nurseries and always online. Happy planting!