Home & Garden Columns

Osage Orange Trees — A Transplant in Time

By Ron Sullivan, Special to the Planet
Tuesday November 28, 2006

I’m stretching the boundaries of “East Bay” because I just like this odd tree. I first encountered it a few years back, along a dirt road east of Fairfield, where we look for mountain plovers. I spotted a number of unlikely objects on the grassy shoulder: Osage oranges, hedgeballs, Indiana brains, Maclura pomifera fruit. They were strewn along the roadside for yards, under a row of little deciduous trees.  

The trees didn’t look like much: short, scruffy, a bit thorny, nearly bald. The fruit on the ground was a startling contrast. Each was a bit bigger than a softball, densely textured in little geometric fissures, bright limey-chartreuse. When I picked up a few, they were slightly sticky, heavy, and had a mild citrus scent with just a hint of sour latex. The stickiness was odd, but I found them pleasant to handle. I brought some home just to look at. 

They’re notorious for having little use; “not worth a bushel of hedgeballs” is one of those Midwesternisms that William Least Heat-Moon quotes in his chapter on the tree in PrairyErth. Some small animals will chew through the pulpy fruit to get at the seeds, but nothing seemed to have been interested in the lot I saw lying unmolested on the road. Herein lies a puzzle.  

Plants need not only pollinators but seed dispersal agents. They can use wind (thistles, maples, cattails) or water, but many use animals, by attaching burrs to our hides or inviting burial in caches by birds, or by hitching a ride through digestive tracts via fruit.  

Some horses will eat Osage oranges, though supposedly cattle choke on it, and nothing here seems to like it. All that pulp, so biologically expensive to make—what’s it for?  

Connie Barlow, in The Ghosts of Evolution, advances a pretty notion: It’s among the North American plants whose seed dispersers, our missing megafauna, are extinct.  

North America used to have horses, long before Europeans brought them back. We—well before there was “we”—had elephants and rhinos, or something like them, and all manner of super-hyenas and saber-toothed beasties and outsized thingatheriums. Some were equipped to bolt Osage oranges (and avocados, and pawpaws) and leave whole seeds in their dung, far from the parent plant.  

When they died out, the plants that had evolved with them found themselves in reduced circumstances, their former broad estates shrunk pitifully. Osage orange was a hot trade item among native Americans because its tough and resilient wood made excellent clubs and bows (it’s also called bois d’arc, or, phonetically, “bowdark”) and it grew only in a small part of the southern Midwest.  

The live tree regained it some of its former range because it makes a good hedge, “pig-tight, horse-high, bull-strong,” in places without enough forest for fence rails or stones for walls. Before barbed wire, it was the best and cheapest barrier available, and it thrives far north and west of its pre-European range—in Indiana, for example. And, as a souvenir of someone’s Midwestern roots I guess, in Solano County. 




Photograph by Ron Sullivan 

A few Osage orange fruits persist on thorny winter-deciduous branches.