One of the most surprising sights a hiker may encounter in the CD, must surely be the Osage Orange tree, Maclura pomifera, also known as Hedge Apple, Bois d’arc, or simply Bodark. An ungainly plant, the tree’s large, lustrous, waxy leaves mark it as anything but a desert tree. Nonetheless, they are here. Planted and cared for both by American tribes and Anglo settlers, the tree now probably resides in every state of the union.
Growing from 10 to 66 feet high, the fast-growing Bodark tree produces the heaviest wood native to North America. It is also one of the hardest woods, (twice as hard as White Oak), and is listed as one of the 7 most durable woods in America. It is extremely strong, extremely elastic, and virtually impervious to insect attack and rot or decay of any kind.
Its branches are protected by stout, sharp thorns, but its sap wood is the thinnest of any tree known. When young, the sapwood is a bright lemon-yellow. With age, it fades to a pale white. The heartwood is usually yellow with red streaks, or orange to dark-orange-brown. The wood takes an excellent polish, and has excellent dimensional stability.
Long treasured and planted by early American tribes, European settlers did not discover it until the Lewis and Clark expedition. Their discovery of the tree has been called the most significant botanical discovery of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. When cuttings were sent to Thomas Jefferson, planting of Bodarks spread throughout the young nation. By the early 1800s the tree was being planted by settlers who had no wood and no rocks with which to fence crops and pastures. But the real planting started around 1850, when the Prairie Farmer began promoting Bodark for use as hedge fences. Tens of thousands of miles were planted in the 19th century. Without Bodark hedges, agricultural settlement of the prairies would not have been possible.
The invention of barbed wire (which was a wire model of a Bodark branch) was cheaper to install and much cheaper to maintain than Bodark hedges, and soon became the fencing material of choice, but Bodark wood continued to be useful. Almost perfectly rot-resistant, and impervious to termites, Bodark became the primary wood used as fence posts, an application it still enjoys today.
Planting resumed during the depression, when Bodark was planted as wind breaks. Within a few years of starting these programs, over 18,600 miles were planted. By 1949, the agriculture department reported that there were over 123,000 miles of these hedges.
The hedges have other benefits – they reduce the numbers of insect pests, support 60% more pheasants and greatly improved populations of song birds. Today, Bodark is being planted for trash collecting around landfills. They are also being used as reclamation plantings on strip mines.
Native tribes are known to have used Bodark wood for thousands of years. The Caddo were making bows of it as early as 1,000 AD. The wood was so valuable, tribes without access to it were willing to travel upwards of 100 miles to obtain it, and easily portable amounts of it could be traded for a horse, 3 or 4 beaver skins, and sometimes for more. Blackfoot Indians owned Bodark bows, even though they lived more than 1,000 miles from the nearest tree.
The wood is extremely hard, heavy, tough, and durable and it makes excellent fence posts, insulator pins, treenails, furniture. Tool handles, pulley blocks, stair and porch rails, walking sticks, mine timbers, foundation blocks, railroad ties, grave markers, guitars, and pianos are other applications.
Many archers consider the wood of the Osage-orange to be the world’s finest wood for bows. Dense and hard, Bodark wood is also one of the most elastic woods on the continent. Only the English Yew tree can compare for bows, but the Yew tree can only be grown in the Pacific North. In fact, the Bodark tree gets its common name from the French, where it was called Bois d’arc, meaning “bow wood.”
Charles Goodnight designed and built the first chuckwagon, and he made it of Bodark so that it could withstand the heavy use it had over his vast land holdings. In 1899 the city of Dallas starting using it for pavement. It was considered superior to granite, because it did not hurt horses hooves. The wood continues to be used for building blocks; blocks over 60 years old have been unearthed in perfect condition and have been re-used for new structures.
Since both native tribes and settlers planted Bodark almost anywhere they could, it now grows in every state of the union. Fossilized pollen from the plant 120,000 years old has been found as far north as Canada. But because of human planting activities, and because of the plant’s longevity (estimated at 200 years or more), its “original” range is probably impossible to determine with certainty. Today, that range is generally considered to be very small, and located in the Red River Valley.
Surprisingly, many stands of Bodarks reside in the Chihuahuan Desert. Large trees such as cottonwood, willow, oak, and Bois d’arc grow within the South Fork of Alamo de Cesario Creek and Arroyo Segundo as well as other creek and canyon riparian zones. Trees near Bodark Springs in the Big Bend National park were probably planted by Commanche, but then we will never know for sure. There are 5 known Bodark sites in the national park.
There is an isolated range of Bodark near Marathon, Texas, and we have now confirmed at least 3 sites where Bodark survives in the Big Bend Ranch State Park. These are located on the Leyva Creek system and the Lefthand Shutup in the Solitario, but others must surely exist in the many arroyos and canyons of the park.
Casual hikers may never see this tree in our desert parks, but a few are there, and who knows? You may be the one to find the next ‘lost stand’ of the beautiful Osage Orange.