Bodock trees don’t deserve malignity
Posted: Tuesday, January 24, 2012 8:36 pm
By: By Jimmy Williams
The Messenger 01.24.12
Last week’s column, regarding the Japanese bitter orange tree (or shrub), included a description of its vicious thorns. That put me to thinking about another thorny tree, this one an American native that is in some respects similar to bitter orange but in others far different.
A very common tree in these parts and one seldom thought of as a landscape feature is the “bodock,” the redneck corruption of the French “bois d’arc.” Its botanical name is Maclura pomifera. Found in fencerows and waste places, the wood of bodock is among the toughest and most resistant to decay in the plant kingdom. Fenceposts of bodock more than 100 years old are still extant.
In the midwest the common monicker is “Osage orange,” so named, I imagine, from the Osage Indians. The similarity of our current plant with last week’s has to do with those thorns and an aberrant branch structure in both. There, the similarity ends, since Osage orange will grow 10 times or more larger than bitter orange.
The thorns on bodock, also known here as “hedge apple,” aren’t quite as vicious as those of bitter orange, but they are lethal enough. I have suffered severe scratches when trying to harvest branches of hedge apple trees.
The branch structure of bodock is a self- (no, God-) made sculpture, and an aged bodock, when isolated from other trees, is a work of art. The limbs are almost always curved and contorted. As a matter of fact, it is difficult to find a branch of bodock measuring more than a few feet that is straight.
Female trees bear huge globose fruits four inches or more in diameter that made for us, as kids, lethal ammunition in hedge apple wars. They fall from the trees in autumn and are picturesque in their own right as they turn yellow on the ground. However, they eventually mush up and are slimy underfoot. Some wildlife will eat the fruits. It is possible to transplant a small bodock tree from the wild, but it will be several years before it can be determined whether it is a desirable male or undesirable female.
The artsy structure of a bodock tree makes for an attractive landscape specimen, if anyone had the sense to use it as such. Unfortunately, the “familiarity breeds contempt” mindset leads to chopping down (not an easy task) most bodock trees when they appear on residential grounds. Often there appears, in its place, some crummy thing like a ‘Bradford’ pear. (The guru of woody plants, Michael Dirr, said: “Osage orange would be far superior to Bradford pear, but the public would never believe it.”)
Bodock wood is bright yellow and darn near indestructible. Hard as nails, dead bodock wood will dull a chainsaw in a New York minute. The wood warps easily, but is useful for small projects. It makes beautiful knife handles, for instance, and I have utilized short pieces for garden benches and arbors.
Just about the biggest bodock tree in Henry County, and, in fact, one of the most beautiful specimen trees of any species, graces the back yard of Baker and Dottie Kendall at Elkhorn. I don’t know how old the behemoth is, but it must have been around for at least a century. It is some 75 feet across and about as tall. The ancient trunk appears, from the road, to be at least four feet in girth and some of the branches more than a foot thick. In winter, when leafless, the outline of the tree is breathtaking. It is, praise God, a male, and thus fruitless.
There are a few brave souls taking on breeding efforts with bodock. In Kansas, several male trees have been developed and marketed. Recent introductions are thornless, or almost so, and coupled with the fruitless feature, one of these trees would make a very desirable landscape feature. Among the named male varieties are ‘Double O,’ ‘Bois D’Arc Supreme,’ ‘Fan D’Arc,’ ‘Park,’ ‘Pawhuska,’ ‘Wichita’ and ‘Whiteshield.’ Try the internet; you will probably never find one at a garden center.
If all the aforementioned attributes of bodock weren’t enough, the tree grows very rapidly and thrives on even poor soil. I have observed them in sun and shade. Shady locations will cause the trees to stretch upward more, while in the sun they will be as wide (or wider) than tall. In either case, bodock will always exhibit the curvy branches that give it the artistic touch.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.