Biography of Durham’s Finest Tree* No. 7: Stagville Plantation Osage Orange Tree

The 2016 Durham’s Finest Tree nominations were evaluated in the fall of 2016. The winners were announced at the Trees Over Durham Forum on April 24th, 2017 in the Durham Arts Center. Of the sixteen trees nominated last year, seven met the criteria of a fine example of a tree species due to their size, historical importance or other meritorious significance. Behind the Bennehan house and the kitchen garden traversing along the back of the house lot are several Osage Orange Trees at the Stagville Plantation in North Durham County. The Osage Orange Tree, Maclura pomifera closest to the gravel pathway leading to the visitor center is the largest of this row of trees and won in the Historical Category. Apart from the plantation home, barns and slave dwellings, most of the early agricultural landscape does not exist as forests have replaced fields, however, a few remnants of this past era still exist: the old road bed to the Bennehan House and these ‘numerous Osage Orange Trees and other historical plantings’.1

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Stagville Osage Orange tree located behind the kitchen garden and Bennehan House on
the historic Stagville Plantation Photo by Wendy Diaz September 16, 2016 

Stagville Osage Orange Description

The Stagville Osage Orange tree has four trunks and a single trunk circumference of 45 inches. It is approximately 70 feet** in height with a canopy spread of 50 feet. This tree may be as tall as the State Champion and is uncommon in Durham County, though it is not as large as the North Carolina Champion Tree of the same species located near Scotland Neck in Halifax County (height of 68 feet, trunk circumference of 216 inches and crown spread of 70 feet)2.

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Four trunks of the Stagville Osage Orange Tree
Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on September 16, 2016
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Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on October 29, 2016

Species Description

The species Maclura pomifera is native to river valleys and rich bottomlands of southwestern Arkansas, Southeastern Oklahoma and Texas3. This area overlaps part of the ancestral range of the Native American Osage Indian tribe, hence the common name of Osage Orange. ‘Orange’ is attributed to the orange-colored mature bark, wood and exposed roots. The texture of the fruit also resembles oranges as does the aroma from the fruit after it is ripe5. Other common names for the species are Hedge-Apple (referring to the tree fruit) and Bodark4 (anglicized word for ‘bois d’arc’ given by French trappers for wood-of-the-bow) and monkey brain6 (fruit texture).

Meriwether Lewis procured cuttings from Pierre Chouteau’s garden in Missouri and he sent them to President Jefferson before his expedition with William Clark. In 1807, he collected seeds from these plants and brought them to Washington and Philadelphia sparking national and worldwide interest. As a result, the Osage Orange became the most commonly planted plant in America by mid-century.

The Osage Orange was planted in a variety of environments and naturalized in many areas, especially east of the Mississippi River. It was also commonly planted in close rows due to the scarcity of fencing materials in the Midwest as a barrier to keep livestock from grazing in fields because of its sharp thorns, wood strength and dense foliage. Based on historical reports, about 60,000 miles of Osage Orange hedging was planted in 18681. The planting of Osage Orange as hedgerows declined with the invention and use of barbwire in the 1870’s3. It was also planted along fences to provide a windbreak and wildlife shelter4. Native Americans used its heavy strong wood for making bows and tomahawks and its roots for dye. The wood was also used to make wagon wheels, fence posts, railroad ties and interior woodwork. Yellow dye can be made from boiling chips of wood in water1. Interestingly, a shortage of dye supplies during World War I resulted in the wood being used as a source of dye to make khaki-colored Army uniforms6.

The Osage Orange is deciduous and dioecious (plants are either male or female) and is a member of the Mulberry or Fig Family (Moraceae). It generally grows to 50 to 60 feet in height. It is tolerant of drought, clay soil and air pollution and easily grown in full sun to part shade. Leaves turn yellow in the fall and the bark becomes deeply furrowed with age. The tree forms suckers or growth from the tree roots and the new shoots have thorns. Its distinguishing features are dark-green shiny leaves, milkly sap, yellow-orange fibrous bark and grapefruit-sized fruit.

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Yellowish-green fruit and shiny green leaves of Osage Orange tree. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz September 16, 2106

The distinctive inedible large fruit forms on female trees only, matures in September and grows to about 3 to 5 inches in diameter. The yellowish-green globose-shaped fruit is actually a dense cluster of hundreds of small fruits (multiple fruit) or drupes resulting in a texture that resembles a brain.

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Brain-like texture of Osage Orange fruit. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on September 16, 2016 

Local History

Historic Stagville is a State Historic Site and was at the center of one of the largest plantations in Antebellum/pre-Civil War North Carolina. By 1860, approximately 900 slaves worked the land on almost 30,000 acres7. The Osage Orange trees behind the original Bennehan House were planted only about 40 years ago for historical interpretative reasons. These trees represent the original Osage Orange trees that were planted on the Bennehan-Cameron lands. In the mid-1800’s it was common for wealthy families like the Bennehan-Cameron family to actively plant non-native species for aesthetic and utilitarian purposes (hedgerow behind the house would have provided a barrier to wild animals and plantation livestock). The Historical Site planted these trees to also depict the important role the Osage Orange played in the history of the United States. The planting is also an example of often overlooked practice of agriculturally-focused plantation owners to experiment growing foreign crops, flowers and trees in order to provide a better appearance around the plantation home and to increase the planter’s resources1.

The Osage Orange is not as common or as important as it once was to the development of the agrarian economy in Durham County or to the early United States but it is worth recognizing the historical significance of the tree to our early expansion and to the ancient native American way of life. We are lucky to have some stately specimens publicly accessible to remind us of this history and to marvel at their uniqueness. If you have interests in both history and horticulture, the Stagville Historic site is worth a visit, especially in September when you can see the unique fruit of the Osage Orange for yourselves. But be careful when you walk under the tree; the fruit is hard!

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Osage Orange tree branch with grapefruit-sized fruit behind Bennehan House (built 1787 and 1799)
Photo by Wendy Diaz September 16, 2016

* Durham’s Finest Trees program recognizes significant trees in Durham County, promotes discovery and ability to identify trees, and helps preserve the best examples of specific tree species, particularly native and those trees well adapted to Durham County. The program also promotes awareness of trees in our community and hopes to catalog fine examples of magnificent specimens of trees due to their size, setting, historical importance, or significant feature.  Durham naturalists and tree lovers of all ages are invited to submit their nominations for significant trees in Durham County now through October 1, 2017. Trees on private or public property can be nominated in each of the three categories: largest, historical, or meritorious. Preference will be given to native North Carolina tree species. Non-native trees may be considered if they are of a species, subspecies, variety or cultivar proven to be relatively long-lived and well adapted to North Carolina. Winning trees nominated in 2017 will be recognized on Durham’s Arbor Day in 2018. Please read the official rules before submitting a nomination.  Durham’s Finest Trees awarded recognition to seven trees in the spring as part of the Trees Over Durham Forum on April 24, 2017 held at the Durham Arts Council8. On March 6, 2016, four Durham trees (nominated in the 2015, the first year of the Durham’s Finest Tree program) located across the city and county were recognized for their size and significance during Durham’s Arbor Day ceremony at the Museum of Life and Science.9

** Based on a visual inspection only.

References:

  1. http://www.stagville.org/history/ and nomination form submitted by Jayd Buteaux at Stagville State Historic Site.
  2. http://ncforestservice.gov/Urban/big_species_results.asp and photograph of champion tree http://ncforestservice.gov/Urban/tree_detail.asp?Tree_ID=400
  3. http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=282737&isprofile=1&basic=Maclura%20pomifera
  4. Native Trees of the Southeast, An Identification Guide, Kirkman, K.L., Brown, C.L., Leopold, D.J.
  5. http://www.gpnc.org/osage.htm
  6. http://www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/tyk/2009/tyk12.html
  7. http://www.stagville.org
  8. May 18, 2017 http://durhamcouncilofgardenclubs.blogspot.com/2017/05 & August 10, 2017 https://durhammastergardeners.wordpress.com
  9. Four win in Durham’s Finest Trees contest” The Herald Sun-The Durham Herald, Durham, North Carolina Sunday, August 7, 2016 Page 6 (correction published on August 8, 2016)

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