Shawnee News-Star Gardening July 18 2018 Becky Emerson Carlberg Have you seen green brains rolling around the ground lately?   They are fruits of the Bois d'Arc (wood of the bow) or Osage Orange tree.   Hedge or horse apples, monkey or spider balls, whatever you call them, the fruits are the size of green grapefruits with […]

Shawnee News-Star Gardening July 18 2018

Osage Orange Fruit

Becky Emerson Carlberg

Have you seen green brains rolling around the ground lately?   They are fruits of the Bois d'Arc (wood of the bow) or Osage Orange tree.   Hedge or horse apples, monkey or spider balls, whatever you call them, the fruits are the size of green grapefruits with a textured skin.   The Osage Orange tree was only found in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas until pioneers discovered the rot-resistant and flexible properties of the wood.   Large stands of Osage Orange were harvested for not only fence posts but railroad ties.   The trees would have vanished altogether if it weren't for the fact some enterprising souls figured if the trees were planted alongside each other, they would form a living fence.   The close proximity would create a canopy and root competition and limit the height. Maintenance would be a breeze.

The Osage Orange satisfied one farmer's requirements:   a good fence needs to be horse high, pig tight and bull strong. He continued: a good fence would keep skunks, bankers and lawyers at a distance. Another bit of his wisdom:  a bumble bee is considerably faster than a John Deere tractor.   This elicited the comment: Yeah but try to get a bumble bee to plow your fields.   With the tiny little plows attached to their wings and all, it could take days.   Farm humor.

Osage Orange hedges cropped up from Texas to the Great Lakes, assuring the survival of the tree in places it was never native. Well, not exactly.   Thirteen thousand years ago this great tree's range extended into Canada.   There were seven different species, not just the one of today.   Giant ground sloths, mastodons, and woolly mammoths roamed the areas and ate big foods.   The Osage Orange fruits fitted the bill.   The ice ages, climate changes and people took their toll and the huge animals became extinct, but not the Osage Oranges.   Their native range shrank down to the Red River drainage area.

The tough member of the mulberry/fig family was prized by the Osage, Comanche and people of the Spiroan Mississippian culture (area of the Spiro Mounds in eastern OK) for its strong, elastic and durable wood they used to make bows. Europeans looked upon the trees as natural barbed wire fences.   Today the tree is found in every section of the US except the northern tier of states of Idaho to Minnesota, Utah and Arizona.   Ironically, in the same ground where the trees now grow are the ancient bones of giant ground sloths, mastodons and woolly mammoths. In 2013 mammoth bones guesstimated to be about 50,000 years old were unearthed north of Enid, OK.

Osage Orange is an outstanding plant in Ryan Domnik's mind.   He has compiled a research list of natives that grow well in many different locales and landscapes.   Lisa Hair, groundskeeper at Oklahoma Baptist University, recommended to me his PDF file on 'Under-Utilized Native Plants of Oklahoma' complete with pictures.

'White Shield' Osage Orange cultivar offers the complete package.   It has few if any thorns, does not produce 'horse apples' and the leaves are even more green and glossy.   Compare to the ordinary Osage Orange trees.   These are dioecious with male and female trees that bear fruit.   The resilient trees do have impressive thorns, tolerate a variety of soil types and moisture levels, and the medium green leaves turn yellow in the fall.

The White Shield cultivar has a similar appearance to the Bradford pear and can be planted as the Bradfords such as parks, greenways, residences, streetscapes, golf courses and commercial establishments.   Besides being strikingly ornamental it exhibits extreme environmental toughness, retains the dense wood of its relatives, has a fast growth rate, little problems with disease and insects and can reach thirty to forty feet in height and width.   As with other Osage Oranges, the wood beneath the bark and the roots are orange, thus the name. The fibrous sepia brown bark has deep furrows in a loose criss-cross pattern.

FYO:   Osage Orange sap is quite sticky, bitter and similar to latex.   It can cause severe dermatitis.   Among the Osage the fruit was thought to be poisonous because of the reactions it could elicit.   If you want to make a canoe out of cottonwood, it would weigh 24 pounds per cubic foot.   Double the weight if you use Osage Orange wood.   Dense.

It's a great tree.