The Seed and the Story: Bodark Trees

Image from Suite 101.

The Seed and the Story is a weekly column exploring oral history, community life, traditions, sustainability in the Yell County area. The column is published in the Post Dispatch and is syndicated in the Courier. Please remember to support your local paper and independent media!The Seed and the Story column is just of many features you can find on the Boiled Down Juice. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. If you enjoy our posts, please tell a friend. And thanks for reading.

A few weeks ago while discussing the beauty of Spring Mountain in Yell County, my father mentioned the number of Bodark trees that grow along the slopes. “We used to log them,” he recalled, “short, tough, thorny things.”  This week’s column continues an ongoing partnership with the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, highlighting entries that will be of interest to local readers.  According to the Encyclopedia, Bodark “is a slurring of the French “bois d’arc”—meaning “wood of the bow,” a reference to the Osage Indians’ practice of making bows from the tree.” Written and researched by Guy Lancaster, the entry lists the titles “Osage orange,” “horse apple,” and “hedge apple” as other popular names for the tree.

Bodark, whose scientific name is Maclura Pomifera, produces fruit much like its cousin the Mulberry. The round, green balls are filled seed droplets, ripening in autumn and falling to the ground after the leaves are gone. Squirrels love these so-called “hedge apples,” and they’re believed to repel cockroaches and spiders, leading many people to collect and keep them under their sinks or basements to ward off insects.  There’s no disputing the beauty of the fruit, a bright green textured ball of intricate dips and bumps resembling a brain.

What’s perhaps most interesting about this tree and their appearance in Arkansas is the story behind their migration. Bodark trees originally only grew in a small area in the Red River Valley in southern Oklahoma and northern Texas.  While traveling toward the Ouachita River, explorer William Dunbar documented their presence in the Hunter-Dunbar expedition of the early 1800s. Known for their extremely dense and durable wood and rough thorns, they became popular among settlers in creating fence posts and hedgerows. Before settlers had access to affordable barbed wire in the late 1800s, Bodark seedlings were popular in Arkansas nurseries and sold to homesteaders across the state.  Today the tree can be found in at least forty-seven of the seventy-five counties in Arkansas and it has spread all across the Midwest and upper south. Its presence in wooded areas may mark former homesteads, yet they’re known to spread way beyond their original planting and take over pastures.

The wood is a rich yellow, often gnarled with darker spots and visible rings, and while Bodark is rarely used for fence posts or fencerows today, it’s still harvested for its durable wood and used in everything from creating furniture to beautiful, intricate woodcarvings, jewelry, and bowls. Missouri-based artist Rachel Wilson (RachelWilsonart.com) uses found and repurposed fence posts to create her amazing Bodark horse sculptures and many people continue to use the wood to create bows, the trees’ original use before white settlers arrived.

Many animals besides just the squirrel seem to enjoy the fruit of the tree, but it does present a choking hazard to horses. To learn more about the Bodark tree, including why some scientists consider it an anachronism connected to the great mastodon, visit the Arkansas Encyclopedia online.

Do you have Bodark growing in your area? Do you use the hedge apples for repellent, have stories about logging the trees, or use the wood for carving? I’d love to hear your story.