Usually when we gardeners think about “imported” ornamental plants in the landscape we think of plant introductions from countries like China, Korean, Japan or some place in Europe. But “importing” a native species from Texas?
As you drive the back roads in Georgia during the fall you might pass a medium sized tree in a hedgerow that has large grapefruit sized, yellow, lumpy balls hanging from it. This is the Osage-orange (Maclura pomifera). The Osage-orange is native to a small area in eastern Texas, southeastern Oklahoma, and southwestern Arkansas and along the Red River valley. This region is the home of the Osage Indians which gives the tree its common name. Maclura pomifera has been known by a variety of common names in addition to Osage orange. These names include hedge apple, horse apple, the French bois d’arc and English transliterations: bodark and bodock, also translated as “bow-wood”; monkey ball, monkey brains, yellow-wood and mock orange — not to be confused with the mock orange shrub (Philadelphus virginalis). The French found the Osage Indians making bows and war clubs from the wood and called it Bois d’Arc (meaning wood of the bow). The Comanche also used this wood for their bows.
Osage orange is an easy tree to recognize in the field due to the bark’s orange cast, its spiny branches, and the unusual and characteristic large fruits. A small to medium size tree 36 to 65 feet tall and the trunk is usually short and divides into several prominent limbs with upward arching branches. Leaf color turns a translucent yellow in the fall. Osage orange trees are dioecious (sexes are on separate trees) and wind pollinated. Its flowers appear in mid-May to June, after the leaves emerge.
It is a lowland tree that grows best in deep, rich, bottomlands but will tolerate a wide range of alkaline and acidic soils. Because of its durable nature, it will also tolerate very dry sites, wind, and, being from Texas, heat. From an ecological standpoint Osage orange is considered a “pioneering” species that moves into over grazed pastures and abandoned crop fields. In fact, in certain situations it can be considered “invasive.”
Osage orange has been widely planted in the east as a windbreak or a hedge plant because of its usually vigorous growth and stout thorns. When planted along a fence row it quickly grows into an impenetrable thorny mass capable of confining livestock throughout the year. In fact, this was the major use of the tree for livestock raisers in the Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma area until barbed wire was patented in 1874. The bright orange wood is heavy, extremely hard, and durable. It is seldom now used commercially but makes and excellent firewood because of its high Btu content. Its wood was once in demand for making hubs and wheel rims for horse drawn wagons, mine support timbers, posts and many other uses where decay resistance was important. Some people still use the wood for fence posts and rustic furniture. A bright yellow dye can be extracted from the roots and wood and has been used to dye clothes and baskets. It is interesting that the largest known Osage orange tree is located at River Farm, in Alexandria, Virginia, and is believed to have been a gift from Thomas Jefferson.
The Osage-orange’s large, grapefruit (hedge apple – hedge balls) like fruit become noticeable in September through November. Because of their large size, I would not recommend sitting under the tree in the fall! If Isaac Newton had sat under this tree, we still might not know what gravity is! From experience I also know that these fruits can become serious weapons in the hands of 9-year-old boys. Despite their large size Hedge apples are not an important source of food for wildlife. Most birds and animals find the fruit unpalatable, but squirrels often eat the seeds during the winter months. It is not unusual to see a small pile of pulp under the trees. The fruit is not edible for people either though it is reported that it tastes somewhat like a cucumber. Some people like to collect the fruit and use them for fall decorations along with pumpkins, Indian corn, and corn shucks. The Osage-orange is an interesting tree that is not native to our area but has become naturalized as part of our landscapes. Happy Gardening!