Friday, March 20, 2009

Yellow Belly of The Osage Orange

I traded some labor the other day, cutting up a tree with my friend Mike, on this really cool farm owned by some friends of ours.  We only spent an hour or so cutting up two trees, and while I worked at the remains of an oak (perhaps a White Oak, we weren't certain) Mike bit into a small hardwood I completely didn't recognize.  The moment the bar of his saw bit into the trunk of the tree it was obvious what the tree was.  A shower of gold sawdust came off the saw, and before he had even made two cuts I called out to him, "you've got an Osage Orange!"  He finished his cuts and I finished off the oak tree for him.  
I learned about Osage Orange trees from William Least Heat Moon's book PrairiErth, which came out when I was seventeen and in high school.  I was enormously excited when I learned of the books imminent publishing, for I had completed Blue Highways only a year before (being a teenager then meant having been extremely young when Heat Moon wrote Blue Highways.  In it he has a picture in Tennessee of some resident, and in the background is a poster of Al Gore campaigning for a congressional seat).  I bought PrairiErth the moment it came out, and though fascinated at the notion of writing a thick book about one county in the state of Kansas, I had trouble with some of the circling the book seemed to do (so as, I suppose, not to make a short trip and whoops, end up just a tiny bit outside the county).  I read the book again three years ago and finished it at the shore of lake Monroe, sitting beneath a Persimmon tree.  See the photo of the tree above (and the Persimmon in my hand was delicious) I loved the book at age 32 in a way I simply could never have a year after I got my drivers license.  
I was real curious when I decided to write about that beautiful sight of Mike's chain saw cutting into Maclura pomifera Raf., I wanted to know strange stuff like, what makes it yellow, Turmeric??  And, has much been learned about the chemistry of the tree's wood and it's strange fruit?  A few keystokes later and my jaw dropped.  The first ten Google hits, more than the first PAGE of Google hits, were about the chemical C15H10O7, also known as Natural Yellow 8.  Prior to the discovery of coal tar derivatives as dyes, natural products were the manner by which one came to color things (yes I know, coal is natural too.)  The most popular source of yellow through the first World War (and rising demand for it driving the chemical analysis of traditional Native American dyes like the Osage Orange) came from a tropical tree called a Fustic.  When demand for Fustic was drastically increased due to the War effort, it was discovered that the virtually (they thought) worthless trees covering the banks of the Mississippi where she runs through Texas and Oklahoma were chalk full of what, initially, chemists wanted to call "Osajin".  The New York Times Archive section of their website had an article on the second page of Google results I got for my inquiry into Osage Orange Yellow Dye, that was from 1919 and discussed an inquiry by scientists into the nature of the yellow substance of the Osage Orange tree similar to Fustic.  Could of read this stuff for hours, but wanted to write this entry instead.  Just fascinating.


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