Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The osage orange spoon

Osage orange, in its Iowa incarnation, was one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time, but wasn’t. The small shrubby and prickly tree, native to Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas, was introduced here during the late 19th and early 20th centuries as “living fence.”

The concept was, you could plant fast-growing osage orange hedges around your pastures and be spared the bother of building fences to keep livestock in. Problem was, the hedges didn’t work very well, livestock roamed right through the hedges and producers had to build fences anyway, a complicated process if you were fighting hedge thorns.

The silver lining was the fact hedge wood makes wonderful fence posts because of its durability, so countless southern Iowa farmers spent countless hours as the 20th century advanced harvesting hedge rows for fence posts and you can still see the results along some back roads.

Volunteer osage orange trees and some remnant hedge rows remain, however, and I spotted these “oranges” the other day along the border between woodland and prairie out at Red Haw.

This textured green spherical fruit is the “orange” in “osage orange.” The fruit is inedible --- although squirrels sometimes pull it apart to get at the seeds --- but decorative.

Some believe that a few hedge balls scattered around the house will deter spiders and other bugs --- even rodents. That seems to be more a matter of faith than practice, although some swear by it.


When we moved to the home place during the 1950s, stretches of the hedgerows that once had surrounded the east pasture remained. Those to the west and south were bulldozed out when roads were regraded and my dad eventually had the hedges along the east and north boundaries taken out, too --- with one exception.

He kept one stretch at the northeast corner of the pasture and on many a winter day harvested it for fence posts. Osage orange grows rapidly, so by the time he got to the east end of the row, the west end was ready again. The posts were free and practically indestructible, but the process was labor-intensive and unlikely to appeal to many these days.

I started rambling down this road in the first place to account for my new spoon --- crafted from osage orange wood.

Meg, who now owns and lives with her husband on the home place, found a couple of fence posts my dad had made in an outbuilding.

Some years later, she ran into a woman in Minnesota who carves (and sells) spoons, utilizing scrap wood from a variety of sources.

So Meg took her a fence post, the woman crafted it into spoons and this is one of them --- a much-appreciated gift.

One of these days, I’ll add the spoon to the collection of stuff on the kitchen walls and have a reminder, always in view, of a footnote to southern Iowa history and of my dad and how hard and carefully he worked, never wasting anything. He’d get a kick out of the spoon.


Ed said...

This post brings back a lot of memories. I actually sold a couple pickup loads of hedge balls to a fellow who hauled them up to Michigan and sold them as a household bug deterrent. I think I got a quarter a piece for them.

I never thought of making something other than fence posts out of them but a wooden spoon is an excellent idea. Certainly better than those cheap pine ones they sell these days.

Anonymous said...

Woodworkers sometimes use Osage Orange for its color, but the wood is hard on tool edges and the difficulty in working keeps its use a novelty.

There is still a quarter mile of it along one of our family's farms, but it has been a long time since anyone harvested posts.