“Green Oranges,” Friend, July 1987, 46
White Bear jumped down from his horse and raised his hand in greeting. Running Wind eased down from his own mount and lifted a beautiful wooden bow to show his friend. White Bear took the bow and examined it carefully. He pulled an arrow from his quiver, placed it in the new bow, and pulled the string taut. Thud! The arrow smacked into the center of a tree, just where he had aimed it. He nodded his head. The deal was made. White Bear traded his favorite horse for the excellent bow, made from the wood of a unique tree.
Fence after fence crisscrossed the western countryside as white settlers built their homes and raised cattle. The fences were living fences of twisted branches and sharp thorns that no cattle could get through. They were the best fences a rancher could have in the days before barbed wire was invented. Formed by special trees that could withstand drought and heat, they needed no repairing.
The trees from which such excellent bows were made and that made such sturdy living fences were Osage orange trees. Used in the past by Indians and settlers alike, today they are found almost anywhere in the United States. They’re called Osage orange trees because they were first found by a white man near a village of Osage Indians and because the fruit looks like shriveled oranges.
The wood of these trees is prized because it is hard and strong yet elastic. Pioneers used the tough, hard wood to make axles, pulleys, wagon wheels, tool handles, and other things. From the Indians they learned to boil the wood chips to make an orange-yellow dye. At one time wood from the Osage orange, or bowwood, trees paved the main streets of some of the early American cities.
The tree can grow up to sixty feet high and provide shade, or it can be a rather low, twisted, shrub-like plant. The branches have sharp thorns one to two inches long, and the female tree bears round, wrinkled fruit that some people think looks like a human brain. Nevertheless, the Osage orange tree is often planted as an ornamental hedge.
Break open a hedge apple, as the fruit is also called, and you’ll see a solid-looking mass of seeds and pulp and a milky fluid that is sticky and has an odd smell. Even though they are a fruit, they are inedible to men. About the only creatures that sometimes use hedge apples as food are quail and fox squirrels.
Some people use the hedge apples as insect repellent. They scatter a few in their basement or garage to drive away bugs and roaches. Even today Osage orange trees are used as hedges around property, and bows of high quality are still made with this fine wood.