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Flora Fact : The Bow Tree

The Osage orange, aka bois d'arc, has been used for dye, food, fence posts - even insect repellent.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Long before settlers arrived in the Midwest, Osage Indians once fashioned powerful bows from a native tree found in portions of Arkansas, Oklahoma and eastern Texas. French explorers described the trees as "bois d'arc" (bow wood), later anglicized into "bodark."

Thorny Maclura pomifera - prized for its durable, flexible, and dense wood - claims more names: Osage orange, hedge, hedge apple, horse apple, mock orange, naranjo chino and yellow wood. In the fall, females bear yellowish-green, wrinkled fruit that rival the size of a softball and smell orangey when ripe.

On the open plains, pioneers with little money and no fencing materials planted Osage orange seeds around gardens and livestock, and pruned the growth into prickly hedgerows. By the time barbed wire arrived in 1874, thousands of miles of hedgerows grew in all 48 contiguous states. No longer used for fencing, Osage orange provided barbed-wire fence posts that lasted for generations.

Timber also furnished railroad ties, house foundation blocks, street paving blocks, wagon wheel rims, telephone poles and tool handles. (Modern archers still value Osage orange wood for making bows.) Other uses: Humans have long placed the fruit around homes to repel insects. The tree's root bark produces a yellow dye while trunk bark provides leather tannin. Fox squirrels relish seeds found deep within the fruit's fleshy pith.

In northeast Texas, folks in Commerce celebrate the tree's rich history during their annual Bois d'Arc Bash (September 26-28, 2008).

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