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History in a Hedge

Historic Arkansas Museum - Thursday, January 15, 2015

What tree makes a hedge that is horse-high, pig-tight

and bull-strong?

Why, it’s Bodark

or Bois D’arc...

or Osage Orange...

or Hedge Apple.

Or a variety of other names that refer to a tree that is native to Arkansas.

And in the early 19th century it was more important than you might ever guess—with its own place in the economy of a developing nation.

If you’ve ever seen this curious tree with its unusual chartreuse fruit and dangerous thorns, you’ve not forgotten it. For newcomers to the Arkansas Territory it made a similar impact. In 1804 Meriwether Lewis and William Clark came across the bodark tree on their journeys—they actually came across it in St. Louis and were told of its origins. In 1805, it was documented near the Ouachita River and later along the banks of the Red River.

Bodark gets its name as a variation of bois d’arc, French for bow wood—the Caddo and Osage Indians of the region had long been using wood from the tree to fashion strong, flexible bows. It was also used by settlers to make a yellow fabric dye. Once bodark became known to Easterners who had been looking for a suitable living fence for their farms and properties, it became “famous” as a perfect hedge—one that was acclaimed as “horse-high, pig-tight and bull-strong.”

The seeds and cuttings fetched a nice price in regions where bodark was not native. Miles and miles of bodark hedge were planted over the decades (from about the mid-1840s to the early 1870s). According to an article written by landscape architect C. Allan Brown (who developed Historic Arkansas Museum’s master landscape plan), “The Department of Agriculture estimated sixty thousand miles of bodark hedges were planted in 1868 alone.”

Why did the bodark hedge lose its popularity? Barbed wire became available in the 1870s and proved itself a useful fence. In many cases, the barbed wire was attached to posts made of bodark. It’s been said (by bodark fans) that the barbed wire wore out before the bodark post! Remnants of hedges can still be seen in some parts of the country. They are now rows of 40-60 foot trees.

As part of the museum’s enhancements on the Log House grounds (we are adding a barn, slave cabin, split-rail fences and garden among other things) a bodark hedge will be planted—Little Rock’s first, we believe, to be planted in more than 125 years.

Learn more about bodark by reading C. Allan Brown’s article “The Uncommon Bodark,” which first appeared in the Arkansas Times, May 1986—reprinted courtesy of the Arkansas Times.