29 September 2016
Becky Emerson Carlberg
Crack. Thud. Have you noticed green grapefruits piling up under certain trees or collecting in ditches? Go closer. Those are not the fruits of the hybrid of the sweet orange and pomelo (aka grapefruit), but the fruits dropping off of the Osage Orange tree, otherwise known as Bois d’arc in my neck of the woods. You may know it as the horseapple, prairie hedge, bow-wood, yellow-wood or monkey ball tree. The Latin name is Maclura pomifera. This time of year, the fruit is ripe and usually all balls fall to the ground at the same time. Who eats this fruit?
A little history of this great tree is in order. About thirteen thousand years ago, give or take a few thousand years, the northern most limit of the Osage Orange was Ontario, Canada. There were seven different species, not just the one found today. At this time the megafauna ruled. Ground sloths the size of bears, mastodons and woolly mammoths the size of their close relatives, the elephants, roamed over the large area and needed big food. The ancient megafauna that ate horse apples had large mouths and alimentary tracks to handle the impressively sized fruits. The ice ages, climate changes and human hunters took their tolls and these huge animals became extinct, but not the Osage Orange trees. With no partners to munch, crunch and disperse their seeds, the Osage Orange’s native range shrank down to the Red River drainage area of Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas.
Native Americans loved the elasticity, strength, and durability of the wood from this member of the mulberry/fig family. The prized wood was sought after to make their bows and they would travel hundreds of miles to find it. The Europeans employed the trees as natural barbed wire fences, so this time people helped the Osage Orange range expand back out. Today the tree is found in all states except for the north central region. Ironically, so are ground sloth, mammoth and mastodon bones. In 2013 mammoth bones were uncovered north of Enid during the installation of a natural gas line. Guesstimated age is 50,000 years.
Thorny is an apt description of the Osage Orange tree. Both the male and female trees (the species is dioecious) sport strong-as-steel one inch long thorns, which is why this tree was planted as a living fence. It sprouts easily from seeds and even produces sprouts from lateral roots, forming a “horse-high, bull-strong, pig-tight” fence as quoted from Mother Earth News. Densely planted saplings will grow about twenty to thirty feet tall, but out in the open the Osage Orange tree can reach seventy feet in height, with a short trunk and round crown. The lower shaded layers of dead branches stay on the tree for years, similar to the blackjack oak. The trees can live three hundred years.
The roots of an Osage Orange are, surprise, bright orange, and used to make orange dye. There are those that say the fruit is a good bug repellent. Both the fruit and tree contain tetrahydroxystilbene, which is an anti-fungicide, so the possibility does exist that the fruits might be effective. One man asked me at the Japanese Garden if we had any Bois d’arc trees. Not yet. He was looking for the fruit to take home. He had heard it kept the cockroaches away.
What eats the fruit now? Squirrels, foxes, quail and rodents will eat the seeds, Downy woodpeckers pursue insects in the trees and horses have been seen chomping on the entire fruit like it was an apple. The latex sap can be irritating, and if it dries on your fingers, it takes a heavy duty detergent to remove it. People have tried eating the Osage Orange. Connie Barlow, a fan of the prehistoric tree and author of “The Ghosts of Evolution” thought the fresh green fruit tasted like air freshener with a hint of cucumber. Two weeks later the fruit still tasted like air freshener, but the flavor now had a hint of citrus. I’ll just have my grapefruit from a citrus orchard.
On that note, you may not have to worry about a woolly mammoth running around your yard if you plant an Osage Orange, but you will be honoring an ancient tree with primeval (orange) roots that has somehow survived until present day… alone, but not forgotten.