By Joan Brown Wettingfeld
Golden was a famous Broadway producer who was well-known in our town (which was referred to as “the village” in the early days of the last century). What had first intrigued me was the hard greenish fruit resembling an orange that covered the ground under the trees. I would carry home a few of the fallen fruit and found they made an interesting centerpiece for the table. Little did I realize then that this unusual horticultural specimen ties us to the famous western expedition of Lewis and Clark whose 100th anniversary we celebrate this year.The Osage orange became a popular tree in the east after the 1805-06 expedition. Today you can visit the Web site of the American Forests Historic Tree Nursery and actually purchase a propagation of the Osage orange.It was Lewis and Clark who sent a small tree or seedling to Thomas Jefferson who had an interest in horticulture. Named for the Osage Indians, a Missouri tribe which made bows of its wood, the plant was native to Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and the prairie states. It could be planted as fence rows to “keep pig tight, horse high, and bull strong,” as the saying went. The story of this tree and its fruit tells in part the struggle of the pioneers as they endured the rather treeless Great Plains, the last frontier.A member of the mulberry family, the tree was “bois d'arc” to the French who were first after the natives to encounter it. They named it so because its tough wood was excellent for making bows. Settlers from the east were used to making their fences from stone or sawn lumber, not easily found on the treeless plains of the West. By the 1840s they adopted the hedge row plantings of the thorny Osage Orange trees which provided a living fence.In 1858 a book written by one John Warden, “Hedges and Evergreens,” made it clear that with the Osage orange, “a hedge can be grown in four years so compact that no species of stock (pigs, sheep, cows or horses) could pass through it.”By 1855 bushels of seeds from Texas and Arkansas were sold for as much as $50 a bushel. Flushing and Bayside were agricultural entities from the time of our early settlers and Osage orange trees were used on the home landscape and on the farms from the early 19th century on. Though rare, they can still be found today and the surviving ones on the former Golden estate should be treasured for their history.After the Civil War, northern steel mills cast about for new markets now that supplies of rifles were not needed. The problem was solved when an Illinois farmer invented barbed wire. However, the prairie farmer still needed fence posts and wind breaks. By 1948 Kansas, for example, had 96,596 miles of Osage orange hedge row plantings.My thanks to Thomas Gaines of Douglaston whose interest in history and horticulture prompted this story.Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and freelance writer.