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Osage Orange

Osage OrangeOsage Orange (Toxylon pomiferum, Raf.)-Handsome, round-headed tree, 40 to 60 feet high, with short trunk, sharp spines, fleshy roots and milky, bitter sap. Bark dark, scaly deeply furrowed; branches orange brown; twigs pubescent, Wood orange-yellow, hard, heavy, flexible, strong, durable in soil. takes fine polish. Buds sunk deep in twigs, blunt, all lateral; Leaves alternate, simple, 3 to 5 inches long, ovate, entire, taper. pointed, thick, dark green, polished above, paler and dull beneath, yellow in autumn; petioles slim, hairy, grooved; thorns axillary. Flowers dioecious, in June; staminate small, in peduncled racemes, terminal on leafy spur of previous season; greenish; pistillate in globular, many-flowered heads, axillary. Fruit globular, 4 to 5 inches in diameter, green, compound by union of 1-seeded drupes, which are filled with milky juice; seed oblong. Preferred habitat, deep, rich soil. Distribution., southern Arkansas, southeastern Indian Territory and southern Texas. Naturalised widely. Uses: Indians used wood for bows and clubs. Now used for posts, piles, telegraph poles, paving blocks, railroad ties; sometimes for interior woodwork of houses. Trees planted in parks and grounds for shade and ornament, also for hedges. Roots and bark yield yellow dye and tannic acid.

The Osage orange hedge marked one period in the pioneer's work of taming the wilds of the Middle West. Farms had to be enclosed. Board fences were too costly, and were continually needing repairs. Fencing with wire was new and ineffectual, for barbed wire had not yet come into use; so hedges were planted far and wide. The nurserymen reaped a harvest, for this tree grows from cuttings of root or branch. All that is needed is to hack a tree to bits and put them into the ground; each fragment takes root and sends up a flourishing shoot.

It is a pity that this stock mostly came direct from Arkansas and Texas. A cold winter with little snow killed miles of thrifty hedge, just as it reached the useful stage. Sometimes the roots sent up new shoots, sometimes they didn't, and gaps of varying widths spoiled the appearance and the effectiveness of hedges throughout Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas. Then barbed wire was introduced, and wicked as it was, it defended the growing crops from free-ranging cattle as no other fencing had done. In most places the hedges were let alone on farm boundaries. These old hedgerows have become an important source of fence posts. No timber furnishes better ones. A row often produces twentyfive posts to the rod. These bring from lo cents to 20 cents each in local markets, a fact which makes them a very profitable crop. The native Osage orange timber is all exhausted now; and as the old hedgerows are passing, systematically maintained plantations of Osage orange, grown for posts, promise to pay increasingly well. They ought to be largely planted in the tree's natural range. Occasionally a remnant of the first planting is met with as a fine roadside tree, glorious in its lustrous foliage, formidable thorns, and the remarkable green oranges that hang on the fruiting trees. It is a tree well worth planting for both ornament and shade, for it harbours few insects and has withal a unique character. It is a "foreign-looking" tree.

I had a personal experience with the Osage orange. "The leaves are food for silkworms"-so the nurseryman had told usand we could have silkworms' eggs from Washington for the asking. Now, gingham aprons were the prevailing fashion for little girls on the Iowa prairies-princesses in fairy tales seemed to wear silks and satins with no particular care as to where they came from. Silkworms and Osage orange offered a combination, and suggested possibilities, which set our imaginations on fire. Lettuce leaves sufficed for the young caterpillars-then the little mulberry bushes, but the lusty white worms so ghastly naked and dreadful to see, and so ravenous, we fed with Osage orange leaves, cut at the risk of much damage from ugly thorns and with much weariness. But what were present discomforts compared with the excellency of the hope set before us! Not Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as we expected to be. And the worms-while we loathed them, we counted them, and ministered to their needs.

At last our labours ended. They began to spin, and soon the denuded twigs were thickly studded with the yellow cerements of the translated larvae, to the relief and wonder of all concerned. But even as we wondered, the dead twigs blossomed with white moths whose beauty and tremulous motion passed description. We were lifted into a state of exaltation by the spectacle.

"Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad." A hard-hearted but well-informed neighbour told us that the broken cocoons were worthless for silk. "You'd ought to have scalded 'em as soon as they spun up." Clouds and thick darkness shut out the day. We refused to be comforted.

This explains why the mere mention of the Osage orange tree, or the sight of a hedge, however thrifty, brings to my mind a haunting suggestion "of old unhappy far-off things."