Garden Muse

 The Garden Oddball

 

by Paula Steers Brown, Contributing Columnist

Why are the oddball lime-green fruits of Maclura pomifera called Osage oranges? “Oh-sage,” because their weird folds resemble a brain? No.

The “Osage” part of their name comes from the tribe of the Great Plains where the tree proliferated. The Native Americans valued their strong yet limber branches for constructing excellent bows. One of their other common names, “bodark,” is a bastardization of the French term bois d’arc, meaning bow wood. And the fruits are clearly lime green, not orange, but after sitting in the sun, they do emit a pleasant citrus smell like that of the orange.

Prior to 1880 (the year barbed wire was invented), the trees were planted closely together in a line to form fast-growing hedges, then pruned heavily to promote thick growth. Once barbed wire became common for fencing, the trees were still used to make the much-needed fence posts, as the wonderfully dense wood resists rot and insects. The wood is a handsome and durable material for patio or deck construction. Amazingly rot resistant, it contains tetrahydroxystilbene, which is toxic to many types of fungi. The hedge “apples” are superb for fall decorating, but I also love them because of my mother’s fond memory of children rolling them like balls, bright-colored curiosities liberally furnished by Nature.

Hedgerows, sadly, are often ripped out by developers, but those left intact provide excellent habitat for wildlife. The Osage orange tree is one of our toughest, most durable native trees and thrives in the poorest of sites. It transplants readily and withstands wetness, dryness, and extremes in heat and pH conditions, so it has potential for rugged, polluted areas. The thorny quality is mostly a juvenile trait and disappears at maturity, but growers are selecting males that are thornless such as the variety inermis “Wichita” for inner city areas and sites considered nearly impossible for plants to grow.  

LADIES ONLY

Only female trees produce the 3- to 6-inch fruits when they reach maturity at about 10 years of age. Trees grow from 20 to 40 feet high, but can reach 60 feet and the fall leaf color is a blazing, bright yellow. I am lucky enough to have a friend with two large, fabulous females who lets me have my pick of their fine fruits before she hauls them all away. They do cause a mess if left to disintegrate, but crafty friends and nature lovers will come a-running to help harvest this unusual crop.

The hedge apple’s distinctive wrinkled texture comes from its one-seeded drupelets (the individual parts of an aggregate fruit such as a raspberry or blackberry). The balls secrete a harmless milky substance when cut. Old-timers gathered the fruits and placed them around basement windows to discourage spiders and other insects. Research at Iowa State University has shown that certain chemical compounds in the fruit repel cockroaches, although the fruit itself does not.

COLLECTED BY COLONISTS

Early colonists appreciated the plant’s many good qualities. Colonial Williamsburg’s wreaths and winter harvest decorations often showcase the bright-green balls. I like to insert wooden chopsticks into the fruits and place those long picks into floral foam at the center of a large autumnal arrangement as an eye-catching textural focal point. I have also hollowed out a plug of about ¾ inch to repurpose the hedge apples as gorgeous, natural candle holders. You need to allow the milky substance to drain away from the fruits before inserting the candles.

I love to pair hedge apples with peacock feathers for fall and winter. The lime green and peacock blue create a showy complement and can be glamorized with touches of festive gold or purple. Add dried floral materials such as hydrangeas and curling branches that have been enhanced with touches of floral spray paint in these hues for extra drama.

The fruits are at their best in September. Refrigerate them after picking until you are ready to make the arrangements.

Fruits can also be sliced open to expose a pithy core lined with the seeds. Line a baking sheet with heavy-duty foil and bake these slices in a low oven (about 250 degrees) until they are golden to wire onto seasonal wreaths as interesting botanical accents.

After you have enjoyed them in a natural setting with gourds, pods, dried flowers, and/or feathers, put the hedge apples back in the fridge to prolong them for use through the Christmas and New Year seasons. Spray the fruits gold and silver for a whole new glitzy look and display them in large glass containers, on a mantel, or with other seasonal objects. The spray paint acts as a sealant, extending the life of these wonderful, decorative oddballs. Just about as multi-purpose as a plant can get, the Osage orange is a real fall find.

 

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