Osage Orange Hedges: Tips On Pruning Osage Orange Trees

Osage Orange Hedges: Tips On Pruning Osage Orange Trees

By: Teo Spengler

The Osage orange tree is native to North America. It is said that the Osage Indians made hunting bows from the beautiful hard wood of this tree. An Osage orange is a fast grower, and rapidly gets to its mature size of up to 40 feet tall with an equal spread. Its dense canopy makes it an effective windbreak.

If you are interested in planting an Osage orange hedge row, you’ll need to learn about techniques for pruning Osage orange trees. The tree’s thorns present special pruning issues.

Osage Orange Hedges

Barbed wire wasn’t invented until the 1880’s. Before then, many people planted a row of Osage orange as a living fence or hedge. Osage orange hedges were planted close together – no more than five feet – and pruned aggressively to encourage bushy growth.

Osage orange hedges worked well for cowboys. The hedge plants were tall enough that horses wouldn’t jump over them, strong enough to prevent cattle from pushing through and so dense and thorny that even hogs were kept from passing between the branches.

Pruning Osage Orange Trees

Osage orange pruning is not easy. The tree is a relative of the mulberry, but its branches are covered with tough thorns. Some thornless cultivars are currently available in commerce, however.

While the thorns have given the tree its reputation as a good plant for a defensive hedge, using Osage orange as a living fence requires regular interaction with thorns so strong that they can easily flatten a tractor tire.

Don’t forget to put on heavy gloves, long sleeves and full-length pants in order to protect your skin from the thorns. This also acts as protection against the milky sap that can irritate your skin.

Osage Orange Pruning

Without pruning, Osage orange trees grow in dense thickets as multi-stemmed shrubs. Annual pruning is recommended.

When you first plant an Osage orange hedge row, prune the trees every year in order to help them to develop a strong structure. Prune out competing leaders, retaining only one strong, upright branch with evenly-spaced scaffold branches.

You’ll also want to remove dead or damaged branches every year. Prune out branches that rub against each other as well. Don’t neglect to trim away new sprouts growing out of the base of the tree.

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Maclura pomifera

Maclura pomifera, commonly known as the Osage orange, horse apple, hedge, or hedge apple tree is a small deciduous tree or large shrub, typically growing to 8 to 15 metres (30–50 ft) tall. The distinctive fruit, a multiple fruit, is roughly spherical, bumpy, 8 to 15 centimetres (3–6 in) in diameter, and turns bright yellow-green in the fall. The fruits secrete a sticky white latex when cut or damaged. Despite the name "Osage orange", [3] it is not related to the orange. [4] It is a member of the mulberry family, Moraceae. [5] Due to its latex secretions and woody pulp, the fruit is typically not eaten by humans and rarely by foraging animals, giving it distinction as an anachronistic "ghost of evolution". [6]

Maclura pomifera has been known by a variety of common names in addition to Osage orange, including hedge apple, horse apple, the French bois d'arc and English transliterations: bodark and bodock, also translated as "bow-wood" monkey ball, monkey brains, yellow-wood and mock orange. [7] [8] [9]

How to Plant Osage Orange Hedges

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The Osage orange (Maclura pomifera), also called horse apple, hedge apple, bodark and bois d’arc, is a 35- to 70-foot tree that was often heavily pruned and planted in tight hedgerows to contain livestock. The tree has very dense, rot-resistant wood that excretes a milky sap. The branches are armed with thorns at leaf bases. Osage orange fruit is green, bumpy and inedible. The juices are a natural pesticide, and squirrels like to eat the seeds. Plant Osage orange hedgerows in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 9.

Sow seeds in the fall, spaced 1 inch apart and 3/8 inches deep in partly compacted soil. Add sand and mineral matter to the top few inches of soil before planting if it is low in mineral content. Cover the seeds with a thin layer of organic mulch. The cool winter weather will help the seeds germinate. You will transplant the seedlings to their permanent location after they sprout.

Water the seeds enough to keep the soil moist. The mulch will help preserve the moisture, but the soil should not be allowed to dry out. Do not flood the seeds, however. Muddy soil is too wet.

Keep the seed bed weed-free as the plants are forming. Weeds will steal nutrients from the growing plants. Allow the Osage orange to grow through the summer.

Dig up the seedlings in the fall after a summer's growth. Stack the plants together to transport to the hedgerow.

Add 4 to 6 inches of compost to the soil where the hedge will grow. Till the compost into the soil at the deepest setting. Osage orange will grow in clay, loam, sand, alkaline or acidic soils, as long as they are well-draining. Plant the hedge in full sun.

Dig a small hole with a trowel for each plant large enough to spread the roots. Space the plants 6 inches apart along the row. Backfill each hole with soil.

Cut back each Osage orange plant with pruning shears so it is level with the soil surface. In the beginning of spring, cut the plants back again to 2 inches above ground level. At the end of spring cut back the plants to 5 inches above ground level.

Repeat the two spring prunings for four years after planting or until the hedge is the height you want. Each time, add 3 to 5 inches to the height of the plant when you cut it back. The repeated pruning will force the trees to bush out and form a dense thicket. After the hedge gets to be the correct height, trim the Osage orange each spring to maintain the height.

Water to keep the soil moist. Once established, the trees are more tolerant of dry soil. Osage orange grows about 3 feet per year. Fertilizer is not necessary.

Can Osage oranges chase spiders away?

Q. Is it true that Osage orange fruits keep spiders out of the house in winter?

A. The fruit of Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) probably will not keep spiders from entering your home. Research entomologists at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, have studied the repelling properties of Osage orange. They found the fruits themselves did not repel spiders, but the essential oil of Osage orange trees had three components that have been identified as repellents. Further studies are being conducted.

Spiders are beneficial predators that feed on other insects and should not be sprayed to eradicate. To keep them from entering your home, seal all cracks and openings. They often die indoors when there are no insects for food during the winter. If you find them bothersome or are afraid of spiders, simply vacuum to remove.

Q. How do you prune a weeping pussy willow?

A. Salix caprea `Pendula' is a grafted plant that has a cascading crown growing on a straight trunk. Trees are grafted to improve hardiness or for decorative purposes. A hardy but non-cascading tree is used as rootstock.

To maintain the cascading habit, remove any plant growth from below the graft (not above it). The graft is distinguished easily by the swollen tissue found on the trunk where it meets the branches.

The best time to prune is after the plant has flowered, but since this is undesirable growth below the graft, it should be removed immediately.

Q. Why has my `Endless Summer' hydrangea not bloomed well since I planted it two years ago?

A. There could be several reasons. Most likely your hydrangea's needs are not being met. It prefers early morning light with shade during the heat of the afternoon. It also likes even moisture but does not need excessive watering when well-sited.

`Endless Summer' flowers on old and new wood, but pruning old flower heads during the growing season will encourage more blooms. `Endless Summer' is hardy in Chicago's Zone 5 conditions, and it does not need special mulching practices. In spring, you may spread 2 to 3 inches of composted leaf mulch over the roots to retain moisture, regulate soil temperature and reduce weeds. Avoid mounding it around the shrub's crown. It benefits from mild feedings of a balanced fertilizer (10-10-10) or add organic matter or compost.

It may take a hydrangea up to three years to acclimate after being planted. It may expend energy establishing roots at the expense of its flowers and foliage. If it does not bloom next year, or if any of the conditions it requires is not being met, try relocating it to a more desirable location in your garden.

The Nature of Things: Osage-orange tree has flourished for centuries with its many uses

The strange-looking fruits of the Osage-orange tree litter the ground at this time of year. As big as a grapefruit, the fruit evolved with large herbivores in the Ice Age. Today, few animals eat these huge, sticky oddities. Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

"Monkey brains!" the kids exclaimed as we reached the old dirt road. I was leading an outdoor school program, and it took me a moment to realize the students were referring to the big, lumpy fruit fallen from the trees lining the road.

I had learned several names for these trees -- Osage-orange, hedge apple and Maclura pomifera -- but the students' descriptor was far better. Ever since that field trip 30-some years ago, I've taken a keen interest in the tree with brains.

The Osage-orange tree is a relic of the past. It flourished in the time when mastodons, sloths, and saber-toothed cats roamed the land.

The softball sized fruit evolved with these prehistoric herbivores in the Ice Age landscape. It's likely that the giant herbivores browsed on Osage-orange leaves and ate the fruit.

Ice Age creatures have come and gone, but the Osage-orange tree remains. Today's animals are disinterested in the globose fruit. Squirrels may tear them apart and eat the seeds, but most of the "monkey brains" fall to the ground, decompose, and generally make a mess.

The Osage-orange tree is a botanical oddity today, the only living member of its genus. It persisted through the millennia and made its home in what we now call the Red River Basin of Texas and Oklahoma. Native Americans of the Caddo and Osage Nations have crafted bows from the branches of the Osage-orange tree for many centuries.

French explorers in the 18th century called the tree "bois d'arc," or wood of the bow. The name "bodark" is still used today.

The strength and flexibility of Osage-orange wood makes it well-suited for bows.

At the time of European contact, the bows made in the Red River Valley were superior to all others. The tree's reputation spread far and wide, and its wood became a valuable trade item.

Explorer Meriwether Lewis reported to Thomas Jefferson in 1804 that the American Indians so "esteem the wood of this tree for the purpose of making their bows, that they travel many hundred miles in quest of it."

A well-crafted Osage-orange bow was worth "a horse and a blanket" in the 1800s.

Bois d'arc has never fallen out of favor among archers. "Many modern bowyers (bow makers) still turn to Osage-orange to keep the tradition alive," wrote Robert J. Settich in Woodcraft magazine.

Strength and flexibility, the very qualities that make it superlative for bows, also made it great for wagon wheels.

Osage-orange wheels could bear heavy loads it bent easily enough to create wheel rims, and it absorbed shock without breaking.

"Those properties," explained Dave Wayman in Mother Earth News, "added to the wood's ability to resist the effects of soil and moisture, made for high-mileage wheel rims."

Resistance to rot was an important feature. Fence posts made from Osage-orange are said to last a hundred or more years. But why bother cutting and splitting the wood for posts when the entire tree can be used as a fence?

Frontier fencing was critical in the 19th century. Farmers discovered that when planted in a row, Osage-orange trees make an impenetrable hedge. Its thorny, intertwined branches and twisted trunks proved just the thing to keep livestock in place.

With regular pruning, an Osage-orange fence was "horse-high, bull-strong and pig-tight," as the old-timers said. Promoted by the likes of Illinoisans Jonathan Baldwin Turner and Dr. John Kennicott, Osage-orange was used for thousands of miles of natural fencing, crisscrossing the frontier.

Another famous Illinoisan, Joseph Glidden of DeKalb, patented barbed wire in 1874, and the use of Osage-orange for fencing declined. Many miles of Osage-orange hedges remained, however, and these proved to be important windbreaks and shelterbelts.

After the disastrous Dust Bowl in the 1930s, Osage-orange enjoyed a bit of a comeback, as green shelterbelts diminished soil erosion caused by ferocious prairie winds.

The Osage-orange is a tree that keeps on giving. Firewood from this species ranks highest in BTUs, beating oak, hickory, and locust. It is, hands down, the hottest-burning wood we have. Some might say too hot. A load of pure Osage-orange can damage wood stoves.

To avoid a visit from the fire department, use only one Osage-orange log mixed with logs of other hardwoods in your fireplace or wood stove.

Freshly cut Osage-orange wood is a vibrant yellow. The color mellows into a rich brown with age. Woodworkers use it for musical instruments, bowls, knife handles and other specialty items.

The roots and bark yield a yellow dye.

In addition to its traditional use as a dye in Native American cultures, Osage-orange was also used to make khaki-colored uniforms in World War I.

Osage-orange is not planted much anymore, and some consider it a nuisance. There are still some on farms in northern Illinois.

When I see those monkey brains littering the ground, I imagine prehistoric mastodons feasting on the fruit, or Indigenous hunters wielding bows made of its wood. I envision wagon wheels and fence row, firewood and khaki fabric.

There's a lot of history in this species. Osage-orange, for all its worth, is a tree of the ages.

Many pruning chores are underway at my Bedford, New York farm.

Here in the Northeast, the winter weather has been pretty mild - daytime temperatures have been in the 50s, and in some places even 60s. My outdoor grounds crew has been taking advantage of the warmer conditions and crossing off lots of tasks from our list, including blowing late-season leaves, picking up piles of branches in the woodlands in preparation for chipping, and pruning the long row of Osage orange trees along the fence of one of my horse paddocks. The Osage orange, Macular pomifera, is actually not an orange at all and is more commonly known as a hedge apple, bow wood, or bodark. The fruit is wrinkly and bumpy in appearance, and considered inedible because of the texture and taste, but they're very interesting and fun to grow.

Here are some photos, enjoy.

Along one side of my North Maple Paddock by the run-in shed, I have a row of Osage orange trees. Despite the name, it is actually a member of the fig family.
These trees must be pruned regularly to keep them in bounds. It is a fast grower – the shoots of a single year can grow up to three to six feet long. Here is Chhewang pruning one of the taller specimens.
Chhewang is quite a skilled pruner and oversees the pruning of all our smaller trees on the farm. In discussing the pruning for these trees, I instructed him not to cut too much off the top, so they continue to grow nice and tall.
The branches of the Osage are armed with stout, straight spines. Before the invention of barbed wire in the 1880s, hedges were constructed by planting young Osage orange trees closely together.
The trees are small to medium-sized from 36 to 65 feet tall with bark that is deeply furrowed.
This is how the Osage orange trees look when all leafed out.
We planted about 300-saplings several years ago – they have all doubled and tripled in size since first planting them.
The leaves are three to five inches long and about three inches wide. They are thick, firm, dark green and pale green. In autumn, the leaves turn bright yellow.
The Osage orange produces a large, warty, inedible fruit that has a distinctive orange aroma.
It is actually a dense cluster of hundreds of small fruits – many say it resembles the many lobes of a brain.
Here is an Osage orange cut in half showing the seeds inside. When mature, the Osage orange fruit is filled with a sticky latex sap, which has been found to repel insects.
Not only will they deter the pesky insects that sneak into the room, but my guests love learning about these interesting fruits.
Because of the thorny branches, it is important to wear protective glasses, long sleeves, and thick gloves when working with these trees.
To reach some branches, Chhewang needs to use these longer pruners.
Here, one can see which half has been pruned and which half has not.
Chhewang prunes out competing leaders, retaining only one strong upright with evenly-spaced branches.
He also cuts out dead, damaged or diseases branches like this one.
One of the tools Chhewang likes to use is my Martha Stewart long-handled tree pruner from one of my past gardening collections – these trusted tools are long-lasting, durable and cut taller branches that are more difficult to reach, especially because of the sharp thorns.
Here is a pile of branches pruned from the trees. These will go through the chipper and get used later, as mulch.
The Osage orange tree is native to North America. It is said that the Osage Indians made hunting bows from the beautiful hardwood of this tree.
I hope these trees produce a good amount of fruits this autumn. What do you find most interesting about these Osage orange trees? Share your comments in the section below.

Watch the video: Five tips for starting into bonsai.