Bois d’Arc (Osage Orange)

Osage Orange is one of our favorite woods to turn.  It is bright yellow when fresh cut, and mellows over time to mustard, then a rich brown with a yellow chatoyance.  It is very dense and hard and finishes beautifully.  You might find the following “Brief History of the Bois d’Arc Tree” by James Conrad quite fascinating.

Dallas History Message Board

Re: bois d’arc in Texas

Posted By: Gerald Harris <>
Date: Monday, 24 September 2001, at 11:41 p.m.

In Response To: bois d’arc (Jerry Bailey)

A Brief History of the Bois d’Arc Tree By James Conrad, Bois d’Arc Bash, Commerce, Texas 1994

The bois d’arc tree is indigenous to a total of 10,000 square miles in a narrow boot-shaped area of rich bottom lands in Northeast Texas, Southeast Oklahoma and Southwest Arkansas. Man has spread the bois d’arc across the U.S. and the globe.

The bois d’arc (also known as Osage orange, bodark, horse apple, hedge ball, Osage apple, mock orange, yellow wood, palo de arco, and by its Indian name ayac and by its scientific name Maclura pomifera) is the sole surviving member of the genus Maclura-of its relatives from past geologic life, only fossils remain. The bois d’arc tree (a member of the mulberry family and related to the fig) grows to a maximum height of 50 to 60 feet, has a trunk seldom more than 1 to 2 feet in diameter, and prefers creek and river bottoms. The bark of the tree is fibrous, vertically ridged, grayish on the outside and rather orange under the surface. The roots are covered with a brilliant orange, papery bark which makes them look like they have been painted a brilliant orange color. A ball of yellowish green flowers appears in the spring in both the male and female trees.

The female bois d’arc tree produces in the late summer the distinctive large yellow/green apples from 5″ to 10″ in diameter, which bear some resemblance to the grapefruit in appearance. The surface of the apple is rough, crinkly, wrinkled and inside fibrous with a white milky substance that oozes out of the fruit if bruised, the fruit contains many seeds. The apples appear to some to resemble oranges and leas the uninformed to think that the tree is botanically related to the orange tree of the tropics, which is not the case. Inedible to man, cows and horses will eat the apples and the leaves, while gray and fox squirrels, rabbits and birds often seek out the fallen apples feeding on the seeds inside. The glossy dark green leaves have smooth edges and are three to six inches long and two or three inches wide, generally egg-shaped, but terminating in a slender point. The leaves turn a bright yellow in the fall of the year. (The silkworm can live on the leaves of the bois d’ arc tree, producing silk. For a time in the 1870s, families in the Dayton, Ohio area took up the cultivation of silkworms on bois d’arc leaves. The federal government supplied the silkworms but the cost of labor and the brittle nature of the silk produced made the enterprise impractical.)

What makes the bois d’ arc different from most other trees is the quality of the wood which is noted for its hardness, flexibility, durability, and resistance to contact with moisture and soil. Local Hunt County historian, Walworth Harrison, described the wood as “ever lasting,” because of its immunity to rot.

Bois d’arc grows from seed but the tree sprouts from cuttings and from the roots also. “All that is needed,” explained a nineteenth century book on growing bois d’ arc hedges, “is to hack a tree to bits and put them into the ground’ each fragment takes root and sends up a flourishing shoot.” Bois d’arc’s ease of propagation and its extensive system of roots makes the tree a good erosion fighter.

Noted for its many uses, the bois d’ arc tree is an important part of the history and folklore of Northeast Texas. Bois d’arc has found its way into the place names of Hunt County and Northeast Texas. Almost every city in North Texas has a bois d’arc street. Bois d’Arc Springs, 17 miles north of Bonham, feeds into the Bois d’ Arc Creek, that flows into the Red River at the northeastern corner of Fannin-Lamar county line. Bonham, the county seat of Fannin County, was first called Bois d’ Arc. In the 1930s a Dallas County railroad took the name Bois d’ Arc and Southern Railroad Company, although it had only seven miles of track and soon went out of business.

When early French explorers ventured west of the Mississippi River-into what is now eastern Texas-they encountered the Osage Indians, who were known for making bows that were superior weapons for fighting and hunting. The unusual tree that the Osage used for making their bows was unknown to the French, who promptly called it bois d’arc, or “wood of the bow.” (In France they would have known it as “wood of the arc” meaning Noah’s arc of biblical fame. In the King James Version, it is referred to as gopherwood.)

Later the whites made a brilliant orange-yellow dye from the root, bark, shavings and sawdust of the tree to color their quilts, and clothes. The dye-mixed with certain mordants-can produce a green, dull shade of yellow, a tan, various gold shades, dark brown, chocolate, khaki and olive shades. The dye seems to work best on wool, but can be used to dye cotton and as a tannin in the treatment of leather. Early settlers claimed that wool dyed with bois d’arc prevented mildew on fabric. Modern-day Navaho weavers use the bois d’arc dye in coloring their hand-made rugs.

The wood was valuable for other uses: railroad ties, telephone poles, bridge pilings, mine timbers, machinery parts, police maces, insulator pins, and coopers wares. The early settlers also made bois d’arc grave markers, floors, gates, foundation blocks (bankers in central Texas would not loan money to build a house, unless bois d’arc blocks were used), county boundary markers, posts for brush arbors and pulley blocks. Wagon builders found the wood of the bois d’arc which is twice as strong and harder than hickory, excellent for making wheel rims. When green, the wood was flexible enough to bend into a circle but hard enough to absorb shocks without cracking or splitting, which made for high mileage wheel rims.

The most novel uses was for paving blocks for city streets during the early part of the twentieth century. At one time or another Greenville, Honey Grove and Dallas briefly experimented with bois d’arc bricks for paving streets. But heavy rains had a tendency to dislodge the bricks and wash them away.

The tree’s real claim to fame was its use as a hedge row fence in the Midwest. Before the invention of barbed wire in the 1870s, farmers and ranchers living on the prairies far from a cheap supply of wood needed an efficient yet inexpensive fencing material; on the treeless great plains, board fences were too costly and were continually in need of repair, while livestock had a bad habit of working their way through smooth wire fences. But the bois d’ arc hedge with its 3/8″ to 1″ long thorns and dense foliage, said to be “horse high, bull-strong and pig tight,” filled the need for a practical, inexpensive fence. A nineteenth century farm economist estimated that it “cost $48 for the first year, $20 for the second year, $12 for the third and after that very little beyond the expense of trimming. It can be pruned and trained into an impenetrable fence that will discourage even small animals. If woven tight throughout it, chickens could not get through it.

To grow a hedge, farmers planted seeds eight to twelve inches apart in a plowed row along boundary lines. As the bois d’arc reached several feet high, farmers intertwined the individual sprouts to form “living fences impervious to man or beast.” In parts of the great plains, farmers learned to plant the bois d’arc on raised beds some 20 inches in height. As the hedge began to grow into viable fence, the farmer pruned the roots growing out from the hedge with a revolving coulter plow and the ditch along the hedge row served to collect water for the cattle.

Midwest farmers planted it everywhere and for a generation or two (1850-1880), it was considered the best fencing material. In 1869, maybe the peak year for bois d’arc hedges, farmers in the Midwest planted over 60,000 miles of bois d’arc. Kansas even paid folks to plant the bois d’arc hedge. Starting in 1868 the state of Kansas paid farmers $2 a year for eight years for each 40 rods of hedge or hawthorn they planted starting when it was big enough to resist livestock. The idea was that such hedges would be thinned every few years to produce needed fence posts and to keep the fences under control, but most farmers failed to keep up their hedge fences.

Surprising as it may seem today, the export of bois d’arc seeds represented one of the primary exports of our region. All across Northeast Texas in the fall and winter, people gathered the bois d’arc apples for the seeds. On January 20, 1875, The Denison News ran a story to promote the sale of bois d’arc seeds to sell in the mid-west. “The gathering of the bois d’arc and preparing the seed for market is rapidly becoming an important branch of industry and as the seed grow in large quantities in this part of the state it is a little singular that more efforts are not made to save them. The seed commands a price that assures nice return for the time and labor in securing it.”

Before the coming of the railroad, farmers grew little cotton because it was difficult to get the bulky cotton bales to market, so the main exports from the counties of Northeast were livestock, hides, pecans and bois d’arc seeds. Several families in Fannin County became wealthy selling the seeds. At the height of the craze for bois d’arc hedge fences, seeds were bought anywhere from $25.00 to $50.00 a bushel. One authority states that in 1868, Texas farmers and nurseries sold to midwestern farmers $100,000 worth of bois d’arc seeds. In 1875 a Denison business, Clark and Tallant, shipped over 100 bushels of seeds to St. Louis for sale to farmers in Illinois. Charles Marion London, who ran a freight business between Jefferson and his home in Sherman, profited from the trade in bois d’arc seeds by buying seeds in Bonham and selling them in Sedalia, Missouri. Then on his return trip from Sedalia, Mr. London brought back clothing, shoes, hardware, guns, nails, shop supplies and tools which he sold for a profit in Sherman.

Not all had such financial success with selling seeds. Walter Prescott Webb cites in his history of the great plains a farmer William H. Mann, Fannin County, who heard that the bois d’arc seeds were bringing eighty dollars a bushel in Peoria, Illinois. He washed out thirty bushels of seeds, loaded them in his wagon and drove all the way with “optimistic visions of a small fortune. On reaching his destination he learned that the bottom had fallen out of the market, and he sold his seed on credit for twenty dollars a bushel, a price he had refused in Texas.”

To separate the seeds from the core, the apples first had to rot, then the four sides cut away with a knife and the core ground up in a small mill similar to the machinery used to make syrup. The seeds had to be washed three or four times in water to separate them from the pulp, the seeds going to the bottom and the pulp to the top. Then the seeds were put on a scaffold to dry and stirred occasionally to prevent the growth of mold. It took about a thousand seeds to make a bushel, and four or five persons could process about two bushels a day.

The Civil War disrupted the trade in seeds but it resumed after the war only to end with the introduction of barbed wire in the 1870s. Eventually nursery men in the Midwest began to grow great stocks of the bois d’arc and sell young plant by the millions to Midwest farmers, depriving Texas of its lucrative trade in seeds.

Bois d’ arc hedges had several features that made them less than ideal as fences. If planted from seed, bois d’ arc hedges took three to six years to reach fence height. Furthermore, farmers found it necessary to constantly trim the hedges, recommended twice a year, a time-consuming and costly job when done manually. A Northerner did invent a machine for cutting bois d’arc hedges made of heavy timber that straddled the hedge and automatically trimmed it but it never came into widespread use. Another problem in the Midwest was that cold northern winters with light snow coverage tended to kill sections of hedge rows; sometimes the roots sent up new shoots, sometimes they did not.

Barbed wire was a much better, less expensive fencing material than the bois d’arc. But historians think that bois d’arc inspired the inventor of barbed wire, Joseph F. Glidden, who had a bois d’arc fence on his farm in Illinois. He saw the large thorns on the bois d’arc hedge and came up with the idea of “putting steel thorns” on twisted wire. Barbed wire took up less space than a hedge’ the roots of the bois d’arc hedge sapped the ground 75 feet out into the field on either side of the fence.

In the North and Midwest many bois d’arc hedge row fences remained for years and spread to great widths, sapping wide areas on both sides of fence rows and interfering with mechanized farming. Eventually in the 1940s these hedges were pushed out by bulldozers. When the market for the seed disappeared after the introduction of barbed wire, farmers let their old hedges grow into small trees and then cut the trees for fence posts, getting almost two posts per foot and selling the posts for 10 to 20 cents each. The heart wood of the bois d’ arc makes the best fence posts available impervious to weather, insects or subsoil moisture.

Before the introduction of chain saws, farmers used large cross cut saws to cut bois d’ arc trees for fence posts. They carried flat files to sharpen their saws because the wood soon dulled the teeth. After cutting, they employed wedges and a sledge hammer to split the large trunks into multiple posts. For corner fence posts’ builders preferred stout large bois d’arc trunks. For the line posts, smaller posts-limbs and large trunks split into smaller posts-would do. Early farmers drove the fence posts into the ground with a mallet or sledge hammer. First, he put the bois d’arc post on a large wood block and sharpen with an axe one end of the post into a point. The farmer waited until winter when the ground was moist, built a 3 foot platform to stand on and pounded the post, pointed end down, into the ground. Fence builders use a special short fence staple in nailing barbed wire to bois d arc fences because of the hardness of the cured out posts. The large long staples would “fly off” the hard bois d’ arc posts. Ranchers today still favor bois d’arc for fence posts because of the wood’s resistance to rot and insects.

For a time cutting bois d’arc fence posts was a lucrative business in Northeast Texas. In the late 1930s, a Lone Oak farmer bought 160 acres at $10.00 an acre from an insurance company that had repossessed the land during the depression. The farmer borrowed the money’ he and black field hands cut enough bois d’arc fence posts off the land to pay for the land in full.

Today, some find more exotic ways of utilizing the wood of the bois d’arc tree. Bud Hanzlick, who lives in Belleville, Kansas, has found another use for bois d’arc fence posts’ he turns old bois d’arc fence posts in to beautiful handmade furniture. As a youngster, Hanzlick made his money by cutting bois d’ arc to make fence posts and doubletrees. (T-shaped hitches used to equalize the load for a two horse span by use of a tongue and two singletrees. They were used with horses to pull farm implements or a wagon.) Bud calls his furniture style “refined rustic.” “My furniture isn’t for people who prefer perfectly shaped arms and legs. The folks who appreciate it are artists and nature lovers who believe that nobody can improve on nature.” Closer to home, Dr. Grady Titus, a retired professor at East Texas State University, makes all kinds of useful things from bois d’arc ranging from walking sticks and letter openers to pedestals for sculpture. Other area craftsmen make everything from dominos to knife handles from the wood of the bois d’arc tree.

John Phil Baumgardt summed up the essence of the history of the bois d’ arc: “By some standards the bois d’ arc is not a thing of beauty. But it is a tough, rugged looking tree that has proved its value to man. The Indians valued its wood for bows and dyestuff. The early white settlers depended upon it for enclosures, for fuel (it burns like hard coal and spits fire to the carpet from the fireplace), dyed their wood with it in lieu of Old World fustic, kept cockroaches out of their cupboards with the fruits. Today flower arrangements worked the glossy foliage and hedge apples into their summer bouquets and autumn creations. For instances of Texana it ranks with the log cabin and barbecue, essential for a while but soon replaced. As a vigorous native it will always maintain its place in the prairie wood lots and farmyard corners.”