Osage Orange Tree

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As lasting mementos of the
Lewis and Clark Expedition,
seven Osage orange trees in the
churchyard of St. Peter's comprise
Philadelphia's living counterpart
to Clark's name on Pompey's Pillar
beside the Yellowstone River.

Who could have imagined that a shrub so unruly or a tree so graceless, with a fruit so bitter, thorns so brutal, a wood so hard and propagation so undisciplined, could earn so admirable a reputation in American Indian culture for hundreds of years? Who could have predicted it would become a major instrument in the opening of the West–or rather, the enclosing of the prairies? By all standards one of the least attractive trees in the forest, how did it come to have its image ennobled by association with a few famous men?

Meriwether Lewis wrote to Thomas Jefferson from St. Louis on 26 March 1804, a few weeks before embarking on the expedition. "I send you herewith inclosed, some slips of the Osages Plums, and Apples. I fear the season is too far advanced for their success." He had obtained the cuttings "from the garden of Mr. Peter Choteau, who resided the greater portion of his time for many years with the Osage nation."1 Pierre Chouteau, who had introduced the species to gardens in and around the village of St. Louis at the end of the 1790s, told Lewis he got them "at the great Osage vilage from an Indian of that nation, who said he procured them about three hundred miles west of that place."2

Figure 1

Green "Oranges"

Osage orange tree and fruit

Here is a view of one of the Osage orange trees, including its fruit, that have been growing in the churchyard at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Philadelphia for more than 200 years. It is believed that they were grown from the slips that Lewis sent to Jefferson, who forwarded them to Bernard McMahon of Philadelphia. It is certain that McMahon, who history remembers as "America's pioneer nurseryman," planted some in front of his store on Fourth Street, opposite the church.3

The Osage orange tree can thrive in any kind of soil, rich or poor, wet or dry. In the purposely crowded environment of a cultivated and well-groomed hedgerow, it is shrubby. Without competition, however, and in soil that provides sufficient nutrients, as in the churchyard of St. Peter's, it may reach a height of 50 feet or more–as this one does–with a crown spread of up to 60 feet.

According to Chouteau they were Osage apple trees; later travelers called them Osage orange, evidently because of the appearance of their fruit from a distance. Close up, however, the likeness disappears, and biologically they're nowise related to real apples or oranges. They aren't even edible, although rumor has it that they are palatable to blacktailed deer, fox squirrels, and hares. "An opinion prevails among the Osages, that the fruit is poisonous," Lewis related, "tho' they acknowledge that they have never tasted it." Furthermore, an ancient cultural memory may have reminded them that its sap is notoriously bitter, sticky to the touch, and can cause severe dermatitis.

Farmers on the Great Plains in the 1850s called them "hedge-apples." When planted close together and regularly pruned, their thorny interlocking branches create natural windbreaks, dust-catchers, and impenetrable boundary fences that are guaranteed "bull strong, hog tight, and horse high"–but not so high as to shade out too many crops. On the other hand, relieved from competition and placed in the rich soil of a site such as St. Peter's churchyard, they reach up to 50 feet or more, spreading out their crowns to cast a deep but airy shadow.


Indian peoples knew and valued this tree for its primary utility in their lifeways: its oak-strong, hickory-tough wood made powerful, reliable hunting bows. Early French explorers and traders translated its Indian name into bois d'arc,–"wood for a bow," which was easily anglicized into "bodark." Lewis was told, he wrote to Jefferson, "so much do the savages esteem the wood of this tree for the purpose of making their bows, that they travel many hundred miles in quest of it." That quest could be protracted exponentially by the time and effort needed to find a straight-grained, knot-free part of a trunk long enough to make a few useful weapons. Indigenous to the Arkansas River bottoms that are now in parts of Arkansas, Oklahoma, and northern Texas, it was prized not only by the Osage people but also by the Comanches, Kiowas, Pawnees, Omahas, Seminoles, and many others. The Scottish naturalist John Bradbury (1768-1823), who studied American flora along the Missouri in 1810, found bows as well as war clubs made of bois d'arc among the Arikaras.4 In the early 1830s, the peripatetic Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied saw one growing on the grounds of the utopian village of New Harmony in Indiana.5


Having seen only a few five-year-old saplings, and therefore relying solely upon Chouteau for most details, Lewis explained to Jefferson that the fruit was "the size of the largest orange, of a globular form, and a fine orange colour." A grapefruit makes a better comparison as far as size–up to about six inches in diameter–and weight are concerned. For some reason, perhaps their more northerly latitude, the fruits of the Osage orange trees in Philadelphia can barely boast a tinge of pale greenish-yellow when ripe. Lewis also reported that the Indians "give an extravigant account of the exquisite odour of this fruit when it has obtained maturity, which takes place the latter end of summer, or the begining of Autumn." The fragrance of its Philadelphia relations is reportedly much more delicate than that of a citrus orange (Citrus sinensis).

Figure 2

Multiple Fruits

The fruit of the Osage orange tree, which grows only on females of the species, is a syncarp–a stringy, fleshy compound that develops from a cluster of several of greenish watery-pale flowers. Each tiny green bump–200 or more per syncarp–is the outer end of an achene (ay-keen) anchored deep in the pulpy core, and holding a single orange-colored seed. The black hairs seen in the photo are styles, each of which connected a stigma to an ovary.

Lewis described its makeup, presumably from Chouteau's account: "The pulp is contained in a number of conacal pustules [achenes], covered with a smooth membranous rind, having their smaller extremities attached to the matrix, from which, they project in every direction, in such manner, as to form a compact figure. the form and consistancy of the matrix and germ, I have not been able to learn. The trees which are in the possession of Mr. Choteau have as yet produced neither flowers nor fruit."

The ripe fruit contains a chemical (2, 3, 4, 5-tetrahy-droxystilbene) that repels many insects.

Setting aside the analogy of the familiar citrus fruit, the tree shows ample evidence of the corresponding color. Patches in the gray outer bark are tinged with pastel orange; the thin sapwood is light orange; and the heartwood is yellow when first cut, darkening to deep orange as it dries.6 The far-reaching roots are sheathed in a dark orange bark. In autumn the shiny green leaves turn to a glistening golden-yellow.

Very hard wood

Osage orange is a very hard, heavy wood. Cottonwood and ponderosa pine, from which the Corps carved its dugout canoes, weigh 24 and 30 pounds per cubic foot, respectively; Osage orange weighs 48.22 pounds per cubic foot. It will hold a screw firmly if the hole is piloted first, but an attempt to drive a nail into this wood will test the temper of the nail and the temper of the nailer. Partly because of its density, it is one of the most durable woods in North America. When hedge-apples gave way to maintenance-free barbed wire fences in the 1870s and 80s the tough tree's rot-proof and mostly insect-proof stems made fence posts that could outlast the wire. Osage orange stems even served briefly as railroad ties, although to a limited extent, owing to the difficulty of finding enough long and suitably straight logs, not to mention the herculean effort it took to drive spikes into it. Today it is apparent that Osage orange will even tolerate road-salt and urban air pollution.

Figure 3

Female Inflorescences

osage orange flower
Osage Orange Flowers

Figure 4
male flower of osage orange

Macula pomifera is a diúcious species: Male (stamenifrous) flowers grow on male Osage orange trees; female inflorescences bear the (inedible) fruit of female (pistilliferous) flowers on female trees.
The photograph of male flowers is from the Bio Images web site of Vanderbilt University, at http://bioimages.vanderbilt.edu/

When planted, nursed, and pruned to keep them in line, Osage oranges produce a thorny, tangled thicket of tough and durable little trees that made a windbreak and hedgerow up to 20 feet high that was impenetrable by man and beast alike. It was cultivated so widely throughout the country during the 19th century that it is now found in all but ten of the lower 48 states. Botanists today can only spec-ulate that its original habitat was limited to southwest Arkansas, southeast Oklahoma, and north Texas.

The proper noun is said to be a phonetic transliteration of the tribe's Indian name, Wazhazhe,7 via Canadian French traders into "Osage," from the Indian tribe of the same name.8 According to tribal legend, the origin of the tribe in the lowest of the four upper regions of the underworld resulted from the combination of two clans, the Tsishu, or peace people who lived on roots, and the Wazhazhe, or war people who lived on animals, which they killed with arrows shot from bows made of the strong, flexible wood of this tree.

Another Osage orange tree on the East Coast has borrowed a comparable measure of fame from another great American. It stands some miles southeast of Monticello in the front yard of Red Hill, where Patrick Henry spent the last five years of his life, 1794-99.9 It is an awesome physical specimen, rising sixty feet in height and spreading an 85-foot canopy on a compound trunk consisting of five conjoined stems totalling almost 27 feet in circumference. Its age has recently been estimated, conservatively, at 300 years.

If that figure is correct, how did the tree get to the Piedmont of Virginia, a thousand miles east of its native habitat, nearly forty years before the first English settlers arrived? The most plausible explanation rests on archaeological evidence that Indians were living on the banks of the Staunton River in the vicinity of Red Hill by at least 1670. Perhaps, as the most important materiel in Nature's high-tech arsenal, the cutting from which this tree grew was passed along the North American Indian trade network, or maybe even brought back from the Red River Valley as a trophy or a souvenir by some prehistoric Native American hunter or tourist.10

1. Jean Pierre Chouteau (1758-1849) and his older brother Auguste (1749-1829) were the leading entrepreneurs in St. Louis and Upper Louisiana at the turn of the 19th century. They were especially influential in maintaining good relations between the U.S. government and the Osage Indians, the tribe Jefferson maintained was "the great nation South of the Missouri, . . . as the Sioux are great North of that river." Secretary of War Henry Dearborn appointed Pierre Choteau as agent to all Indian tribes in Upper Louisiana. Pierre's home in St. Louis was the unofficial headquarters for Lewis and Clark during the winter of 1803-04. Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with Related Documents, 1783-1854, 2d ed., 2 vols. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 1:199-200. William E. Foley and C. David Rice, The First Chouteaus: River Barons of Early St. Louis (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983), 105-118.

2. Jackson, Letters, 1:170-71. Clark's description of the "great Osage vilage," situated on the upper Osage River and the Arkansas River, is the first item in his "List of the Names of the different Nations & Tribes of Indians Inhabiting the Countrey on the Missourie and its Waters," which he assembled during the winter at Fort Mandan. Moulton, Journals, 3:390-91. The village was situated at the main forks of the Osage River in west-central Missouri near the Oklahoma-Missouri border. The principal habitat of the tree was along the Red River of the South where it crosses the Texas panhandle.

3. Donald Jackson, Thomas Jefferson & the Stony Mountains: Exploring the West from Monticello, Reprint, with a foreword by James P. Ronda (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), 161 n.52.

4. The design that Bradbury described resembled the "war hatchet" Clark sketched in his journal on 28 January 1804.

5. Maximilian Prince of Wied's Travels in the Interior of North America, during the years 1832–1834. In: Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., Early Western Travels, 1748-1848, 1906, (vol. 22-25), 189.

6. On March 20, 1804, John Sibly, who was later named agent to the Osage Indians, wrote to Thomas Jefferson from Natchitoches on the Red River in Louisiana. Sibley had found in that vicinity "in almost exhaustless quantities a yellow wood the French call it Bois d'arc, or Bow wood, . . . it has a beautiful fine grain, takes a polish like a Varnish when it is Nearly the Patent yellow Colour it is more elastic than any other wood; the Indians use it for Bows, and the Inhabitants sometimes for Ax helves and handles for other Tools, I think it would be highly esteem'd by Cabinet makers for Inlaying & Fineering, and by Turners. But probably would be more Valuable as a dye wood; a few days ago I had some experiments made in colouring with it and have taken the Liberty of Inclosing to you some samples of colours it produs'd. . . . I have no doubt by a person skill'd in dying a very numerous Variety of Colours might be produc'd from this wood as the Basis; from an experiment I believe the Colours will Neither wash out; nor fade by washing." Doug Erickson, Jeremy Skinner, and Paul Merchant, eds., Jefferson's Western Explorations (Spokane, Washington: Arthur H. Clark, 2004), 309. Sibley was correct on all counts. It was used to make khaki dye during World War I, and is still widely used as a yellow dye by artists and craftspersons.

7. Clark thought their own name for themselves sounded more like Bar-har-cha. "List," in Moulton, Journals, 3:390.

8. Eagle/Walking Turtle, Indian America: A Traveler's Companion, 4th edition (Santa Fe, New Mexico: John Muir Publication, 1995), 79.

9. "Red Hill: Patrick Henry National Memorial," http://www.redhill.org/tree.htm. Accessed November 12, 2005.

10. Nancy Ross Hugo, "The Mystery of Patrick Henry's Osage-Orange," American Forests (Summer 2003), 32-35. The bow and arrow began to supplant the atlatl in North America about 1,600 years ago, itself to be superseded upon the arrival of gun-totin' Europeans.