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Charmed Life

A Tree Grows in Druid Hill

Sam Holden

By Charles Cohen | Posted 12/25/2002

Apparently when city leaders were planning Druid Hill Park in 1860, the landscapers thought well enough of one particular tree that they created a nasty hooked turn in the roadway around it so it could be saved from the ax. Such a hairpin turn may not have posed much of a challenge for commuters back in the horse-and-buggy days, but today the curve demands respect from even the most deft drivers.

The tree, which stands near the Baltimore Zoo's Reptile House, is an Osage orange. Actually, the tree isn't quite standing. Rather, it has adopted a sage, reclining posture with its trunk stretched along the ground and its huge limbs arthritically jabbing at the sky. As park visitors approach the Reptile House, they can't miss the two massive, bent limbs intertwined in a kind of twisted clamp. The gnarled limbs exemplify the unique characteristics of a tree that prompted many farmers to use it as a kind of living fence post, long before the days of barbed wire, and Native Americans to seek its wood for making bows.

Since those times, the Osage orange has fallen from the short list of sought-after, valuable trees. Really, it's not much more than an arboreal curiosity.

"It's just such a unique specimen," says Gary Letteron, a well-known Baltimore forester and an Open Society Institute Fellow, of the Druid Hill Park tree. "That tree might be large enough to be a state champion tree, but because it scurries the ground, it will probably never qualify."

Marion Bedingfield, Baltimore City's tree service technician, says, "As far as I'm concerned it's probably the most significant tree in the city, I have never seen a tree that looked like that."

Though some might say it's just a tree, the Osage orange has a notable history, and a rabid fan base that dates back as far as Lewis and Clark.

In 1804, the two explorers sent cuttings of the then-unknown species, native to northern Texas, Arkansas, and southern Oklahoma, back to President Thomas Jefferson. The tree was named partly after the Native American Osage Tribe that used its wood for bows; the orange in its name came from the citrus smell that emanates from the green, wrinkled, duckpin bowling ball-sized fruit.

Farmers noticed that the gnarled thorny tree, if planted and pruned properly, made ideal hedgerows. The limbs twisted into impenetrable knots, perfectly suited for making the kinds of sturdy fences needed by settlers raising cattle on the prairie. Harder than oak and walnut, Osage was so strong it was even used in foundations for houses and carved into brick for use in building homes. Farmers began cultivating Osage as a speculative crop soon after. The wood was commonly referred to as being "horse-high, bull-strong, and hog-tight."

"The [Osage] formed this incredible mass of branches that is not good for anything as far as woodworking is concerned, but, good Lord, they would make a good fence," says John Swain, a Maryland shipwright, who in 1997 used the Osage's bow-shaped limbs to build the Sultana, a reproduction of a Colonial-era British ship.

The Osage was replaced as an essential fence-building material in the 1880s, when it was replaced with what was then called Devil's Rope--barbed wire. Even then, the first barbed wire fenceposts were made from Osage orange trees--farmers just strung the wire on the trunks that were already marking their property lines.

By the 20th century, the wood of the Osage orange was used for little except making crossbeams for telegraph poles and dyeing World War I uniforms with its natural pigments. It didn't take long for the Osage, once an essential hardwood, to become little more than a decorative plant.

"We've been taught to revere walnut and oak because of their furniture-building qualities, but we have overlooked one of the most historic trees in the country," says James Easter, an Iowan, who runs the Web site Osageorange.com along with his son James Easter Jr., who makes a living as an Osage orange bow maker and wood exporter.

They may be the tree's biggest de facto publicity machine, but in the early 1990s, when a group of Marylanders led by Swain embarked on a campaign to create their replica ship, the Osage was rediscovered. Swain was driving along a Kent County country road when he spied a twisted Osage hedgerow and pictured its bowed branches as the ribs of the ship he and his crew were planning to build in Chestertown. Rather than paying thousands of dollars to import suitable lumber from South America, Swain decided to harvest local Osage, which is also known for its durability and resistance to rot.

The area's farmers, many of whom inherited old, overgrown Osage hedgerows, were pleased to have the crew come prune back the twisted mass of thorns that cluttered their properties.

But it wasn't easy work for the boat builders: The trees' thorns ripped through their clothing and penetrated their work boots. The wood broke band saws, making it difficult to harvest.

After the cumbersome task of milling the curved limbs was complete (crew members estimate that they probably ground down at least one saw blade per day in the process), the crew assembled a solid vessel, which was launched in March 2001.

"I've been building boats for 35 years and I never did anything like this," says Swain, who has since received calls from boat builders curious about the Osage orange.

Back in Baltimore, standing on a curve in a park roadway, the gnarled old tree looks like nothing more than a relic that wouldn't draw the slightest bit of attention from bow-hunters, farmers, or boat builders. But horticulturists and plain old fans of the tree know the Osage has a colorful history--one that makes it worthy enough of preservationists' respect that they'd choose to build a road around its twisted, old trunk rather than chop it down and haul it away.

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