Maclura pomifera, a small tree or shrub with inedible fruit, used as a living hedge. The Wilders saw them growing in Kansas.
Nothing is better adapted to the high and dry prairies of Kansas than the Osage orange. – Annual Report on Kansas Forestry, 1886.
There is a reference to Osage Oranges (Maclura pomifera) in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s published On the Way Home diary entry dated August 14: “…Along the roads are hedges of Osage Orange trees, 20 or 30 feet high, set close together. They are thorny. Their fruit is like green oranges, but no good to eat nor for anything else.”
The thing is: there is no reference whatsoever to Osage Oranges or thorn apples (another common name) in the handwritten diary itself. Anywhere. One wonders who thought it important to add this little bit of information to the published diary, and why?
Granted, the Osage Orange is an interesting tree and it does grow in the Topeka area (where the Wilders were when the orange-less diary entry was written). When French settlers ventured west of the Mississippi River, they found the Osage Indians, just as the Ingallses did when they settled in Indian Territory. The Osage Indians were known for their superior bows and other weapons used for fighting and hunting. The tree used by the Osage to make bows was unknown to the French, who called it bois d’arc, or “wood of the bow.” Pioneers called it bowdark, and eventually it became known as bow-wood.
Pioneers soon learned that the Osage Orange was a valuable resource. It was used in everything that demanded a tough, strong wood, most notably in wagon wheels and rims. It was also found to be extremely useful as a living hedge. Osage orange was easily propagated and grew fast, but only to 20-30 feet high. In a few years it formed a tight, dense hedge with thorny branches that kept livestock where it belonged. It was easier to plant a living fence of Osage Orange rather than maintain fences themselves. The female trees produce a bright green, hard, softball-sized inedible fruit.
The last time I went to Rocky Ridge Farm, I drove to the Wayside, Kansas Little House site. I had never seen an Osage Orange, and when we were driving on dirt roads along the Verdigris River, I stopped the car and got out and picked up a few of the fruits. Of course I was laughed at when I got back to Mansfield with them, because they stink, you can’t eat them, and “osage oranges aren’t good for anything,” just as Laura said.
I asked a native what Osage Oranges were good for, and she told me they were only good to knock the piss out of someone with.
Navigation button photo: “Osage orange 1” by I, Bruce Marlin. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Osage_orange_1.jpg#/media/File:Osage_orange_1.jpg
Osage orange (OTWH diary entry for Aug. 14)