These trees aren’t as common as they used to be. Years ago, Osage-orange (Maclura pomifera) was a common landscape and fence line tree. Some people called them hedge apples, since they were often planted and maintained as a hedge. When growing singly, they can get over 40 feet tall.
Wood is strong, dense, durable and flexible. Back when bows were made of wood it was a desired species for them. The grain is coarse and yellow to orange colored. Wood shavings produce a yellow dye, which can also be used to tan hides or color fabric.
The lumber is dense to the point where it generally doesn’t float in water. Density is 30 percent greater than most oaks. It is highly resistant to decay and hence was often used for fence posts. As firewood, it produces more heat than any other American species.
This tree, a member of the mulberry family, is easily identified by its large grapefruit-like fruits and sharp thorns. These fruits have a pebbly surface and look a little like oversized sycamore balls. While fruits are inedible they emit a citrus-like aroma.
Egg shaped leaves with pointed tips are smooth edged and emerge singly on the stems. Foliage and bark exude a white milky juice when bruised. Osage-orange is another one of those dioecious species, meaning entire trees are either male or female.
It’s a shame the fruits aren’t edible as female trees produce bushels of them. They are tough and fibrous and many a cow has choked to death trying to swallow them whole. I’ve heard the seeds are edible and similar to sunflower seeds, but I’ve never tried them. Extracting seeds and drying them down is a dirty process. The tannin containing latex is also in the fruits and stains ones hands much like black walnuts do. Cleaning the small seeds would certainly be tedious.
Prior to the invention of barbed wire around 1880, people planted Osage-orange hedges to contain livestock. These hedges were said to be ‘horse-high, bull-strong, and pig-tight.’ This is one of those trees kids rarely climbed either. The thorns are a killer.
So do these trees have any potential in the modern world? I think so. They are resistant to most pests and diseases, so they would make great landscaping trees if the thorn and fruit problem were overcome. Propagating mature growth cuttings from male trees is one answer. Several thornless cultivars are now on the market.
Other uses revolve around the milky juices found in the foliage, bark and fruit. This sap contains substances that repel insects. Some people even place fruits in cupboards for that reason. This sap also contains strong antioxidant compounds. One is tetrahydroxystilbene, which is a close chemical relative to resveratrol, an anti-inflammatory chemical found in muscadine grapes.
I’ll always have a soft spot for the Osage-orange. They were always great for pitching practice when I was a kid. This one tree had so many I could hurl them all afternoon without worrying about losing them. They were much cheaper than baseballs.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.