Living Assets

Posted by Rural Missourian on Oct 23rd, 2009

I never cease to marvel at the variety of tree species that abound in the forests and small woodlots around here. Like most Midwestern states, Missouri is rich in forests of amazing diversity with 149 native tree species and 34 species and hybrids of oak, alone. It isn’t unusual in our area to see a dozen or more species of white and red oak growing crown to crown, interspersed with elm, walnut, ash, hickory, honey locust, and maple, just to mention a few of the more common trees. The rich diversity of Missouri forests is due to various soil types and geological structures that make up 6 regions or natural divisions within the state. These same regions also explain Missouri’s diversity of fresh water fish with over 200 different kinds.

The Ozark Natural Division is the largest region and takes up about 40% of the state. It is situated largely south of the Missouri river between the eastern and western border corridors. This stunningly beautiful area is noted for its thickly forested hills, spring fed rivers, and limestone caves. Its soils tend to be rocky and not real conducive for farming, but work well for pasture. The Glaciated Plains Natural Division takes up another 30% and is situated largely north of the Missouri River. This area is not as hilly, especially the closer it gets to the Iowa border. Crop farming is dominant in this region due to a variety of rich soils, which also produce the largest hardwoods in the state, particularly in the river bottom areas. The Ozark Border Natural Division is the transition zone between the two larger regions and it takes up roughly 12%. The Osage Plains Natural Division lies along Missouri’s south western border and takes up another 8%. The Big Rivers Natural Division is found along the corridors of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers and takes up another 5%, leaving the last 5% for a region called the Mississippi Lowlands Natural Division, which is situated in the “boot heel” area in the southeastern corner of the state.

Besides the many species and hybrids of oak, Missouri forests also produce 11 walnut species (which include hickory and pecan), 9 maple species (which include the Boxelder from which a delicious syrup can be made), 4 mulberry species (which include osage orange), and many more families with multiple species. Not all trees with the same name come from the same families, however, such as the honey locust, a member of the senna family which also includes the Kentucky coffee tree, redbud, and water locust, and the black locust, a member of the bean family, which includes the yellow wood tree, a little known tree that grows in southern Missouri. Appalachian settlers used it to make yellow dye and gunstocks.

There are many trees with unusual names and little known, though quite useful properties. Take for instance the gum bully tree, more commonly known as the wooly buckthorn, a small thorny tree with milky sap. Its strong wood is good for tool handles and cabinet making. Then there is the musclewood tree, also known as the hornbeam. It gets its name from two Old English words, horn for its hardness and beam for tree. A small tree with smooth grey bark, its wood is one of the strongest around, surpassing oak, hickory, locust, and persimmon, and is used to make golf clubs, mallets, cogs, levers, and wedges. The wahoo tree, also known as the burning bush is more of a shrub than a tree, though it does grow to 25 feet and is found in nearly every county of Missouri. Its straight stems were used by the Dakota as arrows, from whom it gets its name wahoo, wa for arrow and hu for wood. Native Americans used the inner bark to make a drink to aid in uterine discomfort and for making eye salves. The stem and root bark was used to a make paste for facial sores. The bladdernut is another small shrub-tree that gets its name from the popping noise made when the fruit is crushed. Its seed is similar in taste to the pistachio and is used as a replacement for walnuts in cookies. A sweet edible oil is made from the seed and can be used for cooking.

A very common and useful tree is the hackberry, though more often than not it is bulldozed and relegated to the rot pile with little consideration to its lumber value. Also known as the nettle or sugarberry tree, the hackberry is a large, fast growing, long lived tree that grows throughout most of Missouri. The Dakota ground its fruit and hard seeds to make a seasoning for meats and the Pawnee added them to parched corn and fat to make a simple, high energy confection, sometimes called pemmican. Native Americans also used it to make bows. Today, the wood is used today for furniture, veneer, pallets, boxes, and crates. Another very useful tree that is often considered a nuisance is the osage orange, known also as bois d’ arc (French for “wood of the bow”) and hedge, a remarkably strong, rot resistant tree that makes beautiful furniture, long bows, and excellent landscaping and fencing timber. A bright yellow dye can be made from its roots and its milky white sap has been used a glue and lacquer. Its fruit, the “hedge apple,” is a stinky, bright green, softball size fruit that looks like a brain. Though the fruit is inedible to humans, it contains tetrahydroxystilbene, an anti-fungicide that is thought by some to repel insects.

The strangely named farkleberry, which no one knows today where or why it got its name, has a number of useful purposes. Its wood is good for tool handles, its bark is used to tan hides, and its root bark is used to treat diarrhea. Lastly, there is the tropical looking paw paw tree with its smooth grey bark and large leaves. It’s noted for its delicious fruit, which is high in vitamin C, iron, and is a good source of potassium, which also happens to taste like a cross between custard and bananas.

I am convinced that there isn’t a tree that does not have a created purpose. Some species are particularly suited for wind breaks and to help prevent erosion along stream banks and areas of run off. Others provide vital cover and feed for wildlife. Still others provide excellent lumber for construction or woodmaking, not to mention food and various medicinal benefits. Trees are renewable resources that flourish when properly stewarded, a gift from God to be used to the glory of His name. Nonetheless, since the American people over the last 70 years have gone from being producers and innovators to consumers and spectators, we have regressed as a culture to where we know little of the real potential of the living assets that grow around us, having become content with the glued chipboard and plastic veneer products we get from China and other nations that do our manufacturing for us. To regain a productive worldview culturally, we must return to being conscientious stewards of the local resources God has blessed us with and persevering builders of local economies based upon local production and innovation. — The Rural Missourian