Osage orange trees are a common sight on the Great Plains today although they were not a widespread member of the prairie community originally. Found primarily in a limited area centered on the Red River valley in southern Oklahoma and northern Texas, they were planted as living fences - or hedges - along the boundaries of farms, and have spread widely from these restricted, linear beginnings. The trees are easily recognized by their glossy, lance-shaped leaves and their short, stout thorns.
The common name of Osage orange is derived from the Osage Indians (who used the wood to make bows and other tools) and the fruit’s resemblance to a yellow-green orange, and the aroma of the fruit after it is ripe. (Find one of the fruit that has been sitting in the sun on a balmy Indian Summer day and notice the pleasant, orange-peel smell of the skin.) Not all of the trees will have fruit because Osage Orange are either male or female, and only the females will bear fruit.
Hedge balls or hedge apples are produced by the Osage orange (Maclura pomifera). Other common names for the tree are: hedge tree, bodark, bois d'arc and bowwood. Other names for the fruit are: hedge balls, horse apples, monkey balls, mock oranges and brain fruit.
The Osage orange is a small- to medium-sized tree. It commonly grows 30 to 40 feet tall, occasionally as tall as 50 to 60 feet. It typically has a short trunk and a rounded or irregular crown. The leaves of the Osage orange are a shiny medium to dark green. They turn yellow in the fall. The twigs are buff to orange-brown and are armed with ½ -inch long spines. The stems exude a milky sap when cut. The Osage orange is dioecious. The small, green flowers appear in May or June.
The female trees produce 3- to 5- inch-diameter fruit. The fruit somewhat resemble a yellow-green orange. Mature fruit fall to the ground in September or October. The Osage-orange is a member of the Mulberry or Moraceae Family. Other cultivated members of this family include the mulberry and fig.
Before the invention of barbed wire in the 1880's, many thousands of miles of hedge were constructed by planting young Osage Orange trees closely together in a line. The saplings were aggressively pruned to promote bushy growth.
The wood of the Osage orange is golden yellow or bright orange when first cut, but turns brown on exposure. The wood is extremely hard, heavy, tough, and durable. It also shrinks or swells very little compared to the wood of other trees. The wood is used for fence posts, insulator pins, treenails, furniture and archery bows. In fact, many archers consider the wood of the Osage orange to be the world's finest wood for bows. (The name bodark is from the French bois d'arc meaning "bow wood.")