Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Park Tree


Maclura pomifera. Monkey brain. Horse apple. Hedge apple. Osage orange. Bois d’arc (pronounced “bo dark”). It’s a tree that goes by many names. It’s a tree like no other. Some think it’s got a lot of character (ugly). Once, while standing under a monstrous one at the East Kings Highway Park, I found myself defending the bois d’arc’s very right to exist. A park visitor wondered aloud “Why would they plant that ugly, thorny tree with poisonous fruit at the Duck Pond? Why don’t they just cut it down?”

“Where do I start?” I thought to myself.

You know, you won’t find “Duck Pond” on any Shreveport map. Don’t bother asking Google maps or Mapquest for it. The sign in front of the park says “East Kings Highway Park,” and while you can find that on the maps, you cannot ask a local how to get there. He’s never heard of the East Kings Highway Park. To Shreveporters, it’s the Duck Pond – never mind it’s not a pond at all – but a three-mile-long body of water called Old River Bayou.

The Old River Bayou is an old path of the Red River, and the bois d’arc’s natural range is the Red River Region of Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. This fact and the sheer size of the specimen suggest it was here before the land around it became a park.

The seeds are edible. They are so difficult to extract that you probably won't find them to be worth the trouble, but sit back on a park bench and watch how hard a gray squirrel will work to get those seeds.

The fruits smell like oranges and makes great pomanders. Old wives have been parking bois d’arc fruits in the corners of their kitchens for centuries to ward off bugs, and it turns out the plant may in fact have insecticidal properties. It certainly enjoys a charmed existence free from any known insect pests.

No, horses can’t eat the fruits, but you do find them planted at the edges of pastures. Prior to the invention of barbed wire, ranchers planted bois d’arc trees “horse high, bull strong, and hog tight.” Bois d’arc branches may have even inspired the inventor of barbed wire.

Bois d’arcs are a living piece of history. Peter Custis wrote the first scientific description of the trees in 1806. They were closely associated with the indigenous Osage people. Osage men constructed their bows from these trees, which accounts for the common names, Bois d'arc ("wood of bow"), and Osage orange. The wood was useful (and useful equals valuable) so it was traded for other items amongst Native American groups.

According to the Virginia Big Tree Program, bois d’arc trees live an average of 75 years. The oldest one known to exist is the American Champion Osage Orange Tree at Patrick Henry's Red Hill, and it’s estimated to be between 200 and 300 years old. It’s on my list of things to see next time I’m in Virginia. I wonder if it’s a girl or a boy. Bois d’arc trees have flowers with pistils (female reproductive organs) or stamens (male reproductive organs), so they are either male or female. Only the females produce the fruits.

Maybe the bois d’arc is not the quintessential city park tree, but it’s got so much character.


By the way, Bois d'arc fruits are ripe now (August-September), so gather your air fresheners/bug repellents while you can!

Sources:

Great Plains Nature Center
Discovering Lewis and Clark
Red Hill Patrick Henry National Memorial
Hedgeapple.com
Virginia Big Tree Program
University of Florida Environmental Horticulture Department
The U.S. Forest Service
Wikipedia - Osage Orange, Maclura pomifera
Wikipedia - Osage people
Freeman and Custis symposium paper
Freeman and Custis book

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