Tom Dillard: Arkansas tree from ancient times still makes mark on state

May is Native Plant Month in Arkansas, and that is all the excuse I need to celebrate the bois d'arc tree.

No tree species has a more interesting history than the bois d'arc (pronounced bo-dark), and no tree is more intimately tied to both the pre-Columbian and historic eras of our Arkansas story.

While it might be known by a score of names -- hedge apples and Osage orange being two common examples -- bois d'arc is French for "bow wood," referring to its use by American Indians in making a superior hunting bow.

That early use was later supplanted by more modern applications such as building hedges and windbreaks, manufacturing a yellow dye from the roots, and making paving blocks from the rot-resistant wood.

And, as every small boy can testify, one of the hefty seed pods -- as big as a softball and resembling a large green grapefruit -- can destroy your little brother's cardboard fort with one well-aimed pitch.

The real appeal to me, however, is the bois d'arc's link to an ancient time when mammoths and other megafauna roamed North America before the advent of humans. A member of the mulberry family, the bois d'arc was described and named by botanist Thomas Nuttall as Maclura aurantiaca in honor of his friend William Maclure. Osage orange is the most often used common name.

Botanists know that bois d'arc trees at one time could be found across much of the modern United States and Canada. But by the time the Europeans arrived, the tree was known only in the Ark-La-Tex area, and most likely found only along the Bois d'Arc Creek in northeast Texas near the Oklahoma border.

The tree had evolved along with the megafauna, the mammoth probably being its major seed distributor. The disappearance of the megafauna meant the slow decline of the species, its extinction saved at the last minute when Indians discovered the usefulness of this ecological anachronism.

Not only did the Indians highly value the bois d'arc, it was a major item of trade for them. Archaeologist Frank F. Schambach has proposed that the bois d'arc trade was controlled and managed by Indians living at what is today Spiro, Okla., an important western enclave of Mississippian culture which controlled the Mississippi Valley and its tributaries for centuries.

Schambach contends that Spiroan traders exchanged the bow wood over a large area extending to the plains Indians on the west and down the Arkansas River to the heavily populated Mississippi River Valley.

Western Indians exchanged buffalo robes, dried meat and tallow for bow wood, products which found a ready market in the east. In turn, the Spiroans received a variety of goods from the populous Mississippian settlements, including finely engraved conch shell ornaments, carved stone effigy pipes, pearl necklaces and items made of copper.

Schambach has noted that Spiroans paid a price for their interaction with the heavily populated southeast in the form of diseases. "The Arkansas Valley was a hotbed of infection during the Mississippian period," Schambach wrote, including endemic syphilis "... and possibly venereal syphilis."

Survival prospects for the bois d'arc improved considerably when the Spanish re-introduced the horse to the Americas. Horses eat the bois d'arc fruit and spread the seeds, but it was the arrival of American settlers in the early 1800s who redistributed the tree nationally.

William Dunbar, the Scottish immigrant known for his catholic interests and scientific bent, encountered and described the bois d'arc in 1805 during the Dunbar-Hunter exploratory expedition up the Ouachita River.

He found a specimen growing in the yard of an early settler, and while the "old lady mistress of the place" refused his request for large branches for propagation purposes, she did allow him to take two small branches. Dunbar concluded the tree will be a "great acquisition to a great part of the U.S. should it possess no other merit than that of being ornamental."

Ornamentation is debatable, but the bois d'arc did serve a host of purposes. The wood is extremely dense, resilient and rot resistant, attributes which meant it could be used for special purposes ranging from wagon spokes to fence posts.

William E. Woodruff, founder and editor of the Arkansas Gazette, valued bois d'arc wood for wagon and carriage wheels, and noted that the first steamboat built in Arkansas was constructed of this native wood.

It turns out that the thorny tree could be made into impenetrable hedge rows -- not a small consideration in that era of American expansion westward. C. Allan Brown, the Arkansas native and prominent landscape historian, described the tree: "Bois d'arc is a scrappy plant when young, full of fierce thorns. It can be sheared mercilessly and will still come back fighting. If kept trimmed as a tall shrub, it quickly forms an impenetrable hedge."

One Illinois professor recommended the bois d'arc as the ideal substitute for a fence on the treeless plains. He claimed that after three years a farmer would have a barrier "horse-high, pig-tight and bull strong." According to the Department of Agriculture, 60,000 miles of bois d'arc hedges were planted in 1868 alone.

Bois d'arc hedging was popular in Kansas, where thousands of miles of hedges and windbreaks were planted. The bois d'arc hedge was ubiquitous in Indiana, so much so that fruits were called "Indiana brains."

Surprisingly, bois d'arc seedlings were sold in Arkansas for hedging despite the availability of vast forests. For example, the Fort Smith Nursery advertised in October 1870 the availability of 40,000 plants. In 1888 the White River Hedge Co. was incorporated in Augusta (Woodruff County) and within five years was selling more than 100 miles of hedging yearly. Bois d'arc hedging was also popular on the Grand Prairie in Arkansas County, where 20,000 plants arrived in one shipment alone.

As a member of the mulberry family, bois d'arc leaves can be used to feed silkworms. Antebellum Arkansans produced silk, including the family of prominent physician N.D. Smith of Hempstead County. By 1882 bois d'arc leaves were supporting a silk production program at the Arkansas Asylum for the Blind in Little Rock.

A few specimens of antebellum bois d'arc plantings can still be found. The next time you are in the neighborhood of Little Rock's Albert Pike Hotel, take a look at the huge craggy trees along the Scott Street side of the building. Among the ancient trees are survivors of a bois d'arc hedge that once sheltered the home of famed Secretary of Arkansas Territory Robert Crittenden.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected].

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