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Osage Orange
by Cindy Shapton

The fruit start out lime green and mellow to more of an orange green as they age.

Every fall from September to November I’m on the hunt for Osage oranges. You may know them as hedge apples or green brains or monkey balls or mock oranges. They do look like brains when you see them on the ground and can create an especially gory scene after being run over by a vehicle. Pick up one of these large (grapefruit-sized) lime green, bumpy balls on a warm sunny day and you will find that they do smell a bit like orange peel.  

Osage orange bark is beautiful, but beware of its thorny bite.

Maclura pomifera is easy to identify in the fall, just look for a thorny tree growing along fencerows with brain-like balls on the ground beneath them.

If Osage orange tree isn’t ringing any bells, then maybe bodark, another common name, may sound familiar. I’ve even heard them called bowdock. Maclura pomifera is native to Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas but has now spread and naturalized all over the Southeast and middle sections of the U.S. It can be found as far north as Canada and west into California. The name Osage comes from the Osage Native American tribe from the Great Plains, who used the wood and fruit for weapons and medicine. 

Osage orange trees can be found growing along fencerows or along woodland edges. Osage orange is usually a smaller tree, reaching a height of about 20 feet; but if grown in a sunny area they can become quite large. They are easy to spot after the leaves have fallen because of the grapefruit-sized fruit lying around the base of the tree and the visible thorns on the branches. 

The thorns of the Maclura pomifera are so strong they can pierce a tire! Not a friendly landscape tree, but those thorns have been useful in the past as living fences, continually cut just high enough to form strong, thorny hedges to keep cattle, hogs and horses in and as "abatis" (barricades) during the Civil War to keep the opposing side out, or at least tangled up. 

Most people consider this tree a menace and the fruit bothersome; yet others collect the fruit and sell at local farmers markets for fall decorations and their supposed insect repellant properties. Osage oranges have caused the death of some large animals such as cattle by obstructing their esophagus when swallowed whole, but most wildlife benefit from the strong and thick structure of the Osage orange tree and enjoy the fruit as well. 

The wood from this tree is yellow, very dense and strong and was used to make bows for hunting and as fence posts when barbed wire became available. It was also used to make tent stakes during the Civil War. Cut and dried for firewood, Osage orange wood has the most BTUs of any firewood. When our friend Jamie brings firewood he usually mixes some Osage orange in and always reminds me to use only one piece at a time in our woodstove. 

Maclura pomifera trees take about 10 years to mature and only female trees flower and produce fruit. Old timers tell me they put Osage orange around the foundation and in the crawl space or basement of their houses to discourage cockroaches, spiders, crickets and the like. The rumor is that this method does work. 

Are Osage oranges edible? The seeds are indeed edible according to Jim Mason of the Great Plains Nature Center in Wichita, Kansas, but you need to remove the slimy husk covering the seeds after you spend a good deal of time getting it out of the ball itself. There are upwards of 200 seeds, which are a bit smaller than sunflower seeds, in each orange. The sticky saplike goo that oozes out of frozen and rotting fruit can cause skin to break out on some folks. I have never experienced this, but it is good to know it is possible so you may want to take precautions.

It might be difficult to find a nursery that sells Maclura pomifera, but don’t give up if you want one of these useful trees. You can propagate Osage orange trees yourself, either from new wood cuttings or from seeds. If you want to plant a living fence, try the old-fashioned way: Gather fruit and putting them in a barrel, trough (or large bucket) with just enough water to reach the bottom of the oranges. Let this sit out all winter where it can freeze and thaw (keep an eye on water level so it doesn’t dry out or get too deep). In the early spring, stir it into a slurry of sorts and pour out along the bottom of a 6 to 8-inch trench where you want the fence to be. Fill the trench with soil and keep watered. To grow a tree from seed, extract seeds from the fruit when it starts to rot, put them in the freezer or refrigerator for two to three months, then plant the seeds in a potting mixture and place in a greenhouse or windowsill.   

I love to decorate with this green wrinkled fruit, the color and texture add interest to fall decorations. Combined with pumpkins, gourds, winter squash, pinecones, nuts, berries and leafy herbs they are sensational and are always noticed. These beauties can stand alone as well and are elegant just sitting atop a terra-cotta pot or piled in a rustic basket or wooden bowl. Carve a spot out to insert a tea candle and use them for a centerpiece at your next dinner party. 

Hedge apples or Osage oranges lend themselves well to rustic décor.

Osage oranges are right at home atop terra-cotta pots and will stay fresh for weeks on a cool back porch as long as they don’t freeze.

What do you do with a collection of McCoy pots? Fill them with hedge apples!

An old bowl filled with Osage oranges is a simple way to decorate for fall and will last about three weeks inside.

After the fall season has passed, I toss the fruit around the house for their possible insect-fighting properties, but it isn’t long before the squirrels find them and rip them to shreds. Those same marauders are constantly stealing the Osage oranges used for decorations from the pile of pumpkins, gourds and winter squash near our front door. I find stolen fruit scattered in the yard and at the end of the drive. I gather them all up and return them to the front porch … after all I had to hunt them in the wild, they can too! 

Osage oranges add color and texture to any centerpiece and give it that "Martha" touch. It will also give your dinner guests something fun to talk about.

If you are looking for a source to buy hedge apples or want more information go to hedgeapple.com.

Photography by Cindy Shapton.

Posted November 2012


Cindy Shapton writes, speaks and gardens with her new canine helper Rosie. Like her Facebook page at facebook.com/thecrackedpotgardener and pick up a copy of The Cracked Pot Herb Book online at cindyshapton.com.



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Suzie - 11/29/2012

See the following on Osage, a true focus recently in Chattanooga TN:
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