Ozark Tree Fact – Sawmilling Hedge is a Good Bet

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Trees and wood have impacted our culture in surprising ways and I’m always interested in learning about these impacts along with the folklore that gets handed down with them. Living in the Ozarks, there is plenty of fact and fiction surrounding our forests and sometimes the distinction between the two is a thin, blurry line. Even the word “Ozark” comes from trees. The Osage Indians made their best bows from the wood of the hedge tree (Maclura pomifera). Early French trappers, impressed by the beauty and quality of the bows referred to them as “bois d’ark” (pronounced “bodark”) and literally meaning “beautiful bow”). From that, this area became known as the Ozarks. Other names for the hedge tree are “bodark”, “Osage orange” and “horseapple” (from the large fruit).

hedgerowThe trees are thorny and usually gnarly and crooked, but the wood is tough, dense, and rot resistant.  On the prairies, hedge was planted in “hedgerows” to serve as living fences. This quote from the Arkansas Home & Garden web site describes these early fences, “In his 1858 book, ‘Hedges and Evergreens,’ John Warden writes from Cincinnati that ‘It is no longer a matter of experiment, whether the Osage Orange will make a fence or not. It is a proved fact that … a hedge can be grown in four years, so compact that no kind of stock can pass it.” When barbed wire became popular, hedge served as fence posts, lasting over 100 years in the ground. During the dust bowl years of the 1930s, hedgerows were planted as windbreaks. Most of these hedgerows have been bulldozed down now, but a few still remain.

cutting a hedge logHedge is hands-down the best firewood, producing about 30{ecddf9adde44d27d9b15adaf662c1dc75823d7a27d1c0a3dca6c68c19970fb5c} more heat per cord than oak. But it must be burned with caution, as it can melt a cast iron stove! If you are fortunate enough to find a hedge log long and straight enough to put on your portable sawmill, mill it right away. It gets even harder as it dries and you’ll find that you’ll need to cut slowly and change bandsaw blades often. The gold-colored sawdust flying out the chute will be your first clue you are cutting a truly unique species of wood. When you pull off the first slab, you’ll fully appreciate the fact it is the densest species of wood native to North America. You’ll want to set the slabs aside for outdoor slab furniture or for firewood. The bright yellow boards eventually oxidize to a honey brown.

Hedge has incredible tonal qualities making it highly desired for musical instruments—if the pieces are big enough. Traditional archery bow makers pay a premium for straight hedge and this can be a lucrative market, but they are very particular about how the wood is cut. If you need a new cant hook handle, you couldn’t possibly do better than hedge. You will never have to replace it, unless it is in a fire. And the golden yellow sawdust? Save it. It was traditionally used to dye fabrics. Although the fruit is not edible, it is said to be very effective at repelling cockroaches and spiders. Just about the only thing that doesn’t have a use is the thorns, though it is possible they were once used for sewing needles.

We have a place on our tree farm that I refer to as “Osage Flat”; not because it is a flat piece of ground, but because I got two flat tires from running over the thorny branch of an Osage orange tree. Before you decide to plant hedge, be advised it is largely considered a nuisance tree. It is very easy to obtain in its native range. You can find advertisements (on Craigslist, for example) for hedge corner posts or firewood. Some larger corner posts are big enough for cutting on a portable bandsaw mill and firewood cutters are glad to sell hedge logs for firewood prices, especially since it saves them from cutting and splitting the wood (hedge is tough on chain saw chains too). If you are lucky enough to find someone clearing some land, you may be able to come in and cut hedge logs at no cost (other than repairing a flat tire or two). If the trees have been bulldozed, you may be able to recover some roots, as well. Save these for wood turners. A winch, by the way, is a valuable tool for pulling logs out so you don’t need to drive across the branches.

So there you have it. If and when you are milling hedge logs, you are indeed slicing into a fascinating piece of American history and potentially creating some valuable lumber!

Hedgerow photo credit: http://1canoe2.com/blog/tag/hedge/

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