Frances Hairston: The beauty of the bois d'arc

October 15, 2013 10:01:52 AM



If you have never had the privilege of viewing the beauty of a large bodock tree from your own yard, you've missed something. A gnarly looking twisting structure of a tree with big lime green fruit with a pebbly texture, the bodock could well be the official tree of the Prairie. Just as easily one could imagine the tree in J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth. Formally known as a bois d'arc tree or osage orange, the tree thrives in long hedgerows surrounding fields and pastures. It is said not even a rabbit could run through a thick bodock hedgerow. I had never seen one of the prickly trees before arriving at my new home near Crawford a half century ago, but was amazed at the natural beauty of their unique structures and softball-sized fruit. 


Though the fruit is no good for human consumption, I noticed that horses feel otherwise, the green balls are popularly known as horse apples. It was also interesting to notice that cows avoid them like kids avoid broccoli. The wood is very strong and makes good bows, hence the word "arc" in its name. It was a common practice for farmers in the area years ago before the advent of the steel post to use the bodock wood for fence posts. They do not rot and will last indefinitely. There are many old posts that still dot the prairie landscape. I still have remnants of some of these posts which I use like garden sculptures because of their character. Swinton Potts used to sacrifice older fence posts every year to Magowah Gun Club's barbecue pit. 


Even though I experienced the downside of the bodock's thorny branches with some flat tires and a punctured shoe or two, I came to respect the natural beauty of this unique tree. If you cut on the cross grain in the wood, you will see a beautiful orange cross section. In the 1930's during the Depression, my father-in-law, the late Peter Hairston, sent rail car loads of bois d'arc wood to Chicago to a furniture factory. The factory made a beautiful orange dye from the wood. Recently my son, Peter, cut down a bois d'arc tree in my yard that was leaning way too far for my comfort. I just could not see burning the cut up pieces. Surely I can get someone to create some beautifully turned bowls or something similar. When I worked at Aspen Bay Candles in Starkville in the late 1990's, I took a large bois d'arc ball the size of a small cantaloupe and took it to the then-owner, Walter Stubbe, as an idea for a candle. Walter, who was quick to see a possibility, made a candle mold out of the ball, and Aspen Bay sold many bois d'arc candles in their sweet lime shade of green. 


I have used these colorful balls of the prairie many times with flower arrangements or simply placed them in a bowl. Sometimes people look at me askance when I have used them in church arrangements, but the bright green color makes the other colors next to them pop. Try them in an arrangement with pink roses and yellow goldenrod. 


Although some people see these trees as just a nuisance and think they are rather strange looking, they are a unique part of the prairie. After 51 years of living in this area, I think they just seem to fit our surroundings. God may have been exercising his remarkable sense of humor when he made the unusual ball-shaped fruit of the bodock tree, but to me they look like a work of art.