Introducing Maclura pomifera

Between the end of August and the beginning of December, I get the occasional query at the Day Job and elsewhere about “brainfruit”. Along the sides of roads, in the middle of parks, and across vacant lots, these strange green pods appear, sometimes dropping down into traffic. They generally range about the size of a softball, with fine crinkles and whorls across its surface. Even the ones hitting pavement usually roll away with little to no damage, and they generally sit for a time until wet and cold set off rot.

Osage orange

Look up at the right time, and be prepared to duck. The tree can sometimes grow to as much as 60 feet (18.28 meters) tall, but it usually remains shrubby throughout North Texas. It can be found in individual clumps of junk trees, full brush, and even as isolated trees in the middle of nowhere. The amazing thing about the tree is how well it blends in with everything else until it bears fruit: mixed in with a copse of hackberry trees, and it blends in perfectly for most of the year. See one with fruit, though, and everyone pays attention.

Osage orange bunch

This is most peoples’ first encounter with Maclura pomifera, known commonly by such names as “Osage orange,” “horse apple,” “hedge tree,” or “Bodark”. It’s a remarkably common tree throughout North Texas, and not just because it’s a native. While mostly forgotten today, M. pomifera used to be a valuable tree, both ecologically and economically speaking.

Before anyone asks, the fruit itself is inedible to humans: cut one open, and it’s full of fibrous pulp and seeds that resemble elongated cantaloupe seeds. They aren’t a particular choice of most animals today, either, regardless of the “horse apple” common name. However, based on dung samples, M. pomifera fruit used to be quite the treat for Columbian mammoths and ground sloths during the last ice age. Both would mash up the fruit, swallowing the seeds and passing them in their dung, thereby protecting them from squirrels, mice, and other possible consumers. Today, without the benefit of Pleistocene megafauna, those fruit either rot on the ground or are torn up by squirrels for the seeds, and treerat predation helps explain why the trees died back from their original range across most of North America to their last holdouts in Texas and Oklahoma by the time of the first European colonization of the continent.

If not for human intervention, M. pomifera might have faced the same crisis as the Wollemi pine. However, the various indigenous tribes through its range noted that its wood is remarkably rot-resistant. The wood is also both an attractive yellow-orange and incredibly tough, thus making it a desirable tree for woodworkers patient enough to shape it without wearing out their tools in the process. Fence posts, pilings, bowls and cups…I even have a pen given to me by the Czarina made from turned Osage orange, and it’s the most comfortable pen I’ve ever owned. The combination of strength and flexibility made it an excellent wood for bowstaves, and the original French name, “bois d’arc,” was rapidly corrupted into “bodark”.

Osage orange thorns

The common nicknames “hedge tree” and “hedge apple” come from a more recent use. Before the invention of barbed wire, nurseries grew Osage oranges for hedges around farms. As the picture above shows, M. pomifera puts out nasty thorns much like those on citrus, with much the same effect on anything trying to pass through a stand of them. (Also like citrus, the thorn points tend to break off in wounds, so should you find yourself punctured by one, make absolutely sure to get out that tip from the wound before it festers.) The standard mnemonic for planting them was “horse high, bull strong, and pig tight,” referring to letting them grow high enough to keep horses from jumping them, strong enough that a bull couldn’t shove its way through, and close enough together that pigs couldn’t squeeze through. Obviously, the popularization of barbed wire spread well beyond the open prairie, but Osage orange posts continued to be used, and the trees themselves found themselves going feral in most of their old pre-Holocene territory.

As to what to do with the fruit? This time of the year, plenty of well-meaning Osage orange fans relate how keeping the fruit inside houses and garages keeps cockroaches and other insects away. As someone who has watched big local palmetto bugs feeding on rotting Osage oranges, I call shenanigans, and I’d never even consider using them to drive off spiders or scorpions in any way other than with a good fastball. Should you want to encourage squirrels and chipmunks in your back yard, a couple tossed out every week offer hours of entertainment, and they also make great bait for those who want to exterminate the little vermin. And then there’s the obvious use: spread them out in the front yard when out-of-town relatives arrive, and tell them that Texas has a tradition similar to the Easter Bunny involving the “Thanksgiving Armadillo”. That’s the best use yet.

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