In many communities, there are iconic trees that nearly everyone recognizes and admires in passing during daily life. The spreading, stately tree at the corner of University and Prospect avenues in Champaign is certainly a historic and interesting specimen. I cannot count the times that someone has asked me, "What kind of tree is that?", nor can I count the times that I have sat at the stoplight on University Avenue admiring that tree as I waited.
This gnarly old tree is an Osage orange (Maclura pomifera), or hedge apple tree, centered in current-day Trevett/Finch Park. However, the tree was originally part of a 5-acre farm purchased in 1857 by Oliver Trevett. It's so fascinating to picture a 5-acre farm at this location, given the current urbanization that surrounds it.
The 1893 plat book for Champaign shows that surrounding properties to the west were still 5 to 10 acres in size, making Prospect Avenue the western edge of Champaign's urban area. By the 1913 plat, many of the neighborhoods we know now were filling in the area, although University Avenue ended abruptly at modern-day Russel Street with a large plot of farmland extending to the west. How interesting to consider this Osage orange looking on as the city expanded around it?
A 1969 News-Gazette article mentions the tree in reference to a memorial that was donated to the Champaign County Development Council in memory of Mr. Trevett's great-granddaughter, Helen Finch. The article discusses the tree's significance to the community as Mrs. Finch and her relatives always kept the tree available for local children to play in and around, making it a well-known attraction to many Champaign-Urbana residents over the years.
In the early '80s, the tree and remaining park-like area around it were donated to the Champaign Park District by the living descendants of Oliver Trevett, so all future generations could enjoy its sprawling limbs and patchy shade.
The News-Gazette article also mentions that the tree is believed to be a thornless variety of Osage orange developed by Johnathan Baldwin Turner (1805-1899), who was a huge advocate throughout the mid-1800s for planting Osage orange as a living fence to contain livestock. Barbed wire would not make its debut until the 1880s. Interestingly, Turner was also a major proponent of the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act of 1862, which led to the formation of the University of Illinois.
Osage orange typically has thorns on branches lower in its canopy, but upper limbs are often thornless. Propagation using the upper limbs can result in thornless varieties. The Osage orange in Trevett/Finch Park is, in fact, thornless and likely was planted around the time that Turner was an active nurseryman, distributing plant material throughout Illinois.
At the time of European settlement, the natural range of Osage orange was limited to the Red River drainage, comprising a relatively small area of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. However, prehistoric pollen records show a far greater range, possibly into Canada. It was the influence of glaciers that limited its range to the Red River watershed and created the vast prairies that Turner and others later helped it fence.
The wood of Osage orange certainly has unique characteristics. Anyone that has ever tried to saw through it knows that it is one of the hardest, densest wood fibers of any tree. It was the first tree species I ever used a chainsaw on, leaving me with the impression that chainsaws were poorly cutting tools. Little did I know that even the sharpest chainsaw struggles to cut hedge trees? Along those same lines, its density also provides some of the highest heat output of any firewood on this continent.
Native Americans were the first to recognize its unique wood fiber, fashioning it into bows for hunting. Its limited home range allowed a single tribe, the Spiroans of the Mississippian culture, to control much of the bow wood trade from 1250-1450, trading Osage orange bows for bison products from the plains and amassing great wealth that is evidenced today by the Spiro Mounds in Oklahoma. The wood remained an important and sought-after bow making material for many other tribes throughout American history.
The Osage orange tree itself served many valuable functions to both Native Americans and pioneer settlers of the Great Plains.
It's just fascinating to me that the centerpiece of Trevett/Finch Park stands as a living monument to the historical significance of Osage orange while preserving a very special tree of our own local community.
Ryan Pankau is a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties.