wrinkled green hedge apples
bowing down the spiny boughs
of the Osage Orange
The cellar of my grandparent's farmhouse was dark, musty and spooky, so of course we liked to go down there, creeping through cobwebs and listening for the sound of things skittering in the darkness. We were fascinated by the hedge apples that looked like green brains lined up along the foundation. Grandma said that ripe hedge apples scared off bugs. My chemist father said that was just an old wive's tale and, sure enough, we saw plenty of spiders, cockroaches and pill bugs in that cellar. But when I grew up and had my own place in the Flint Hills of Kansas, I put hedge apples around the foundation of our 1840s limestone farmhouse.
Though round and green, the hedge apple is not an apple. It is also not an orange, although the tree is called Osage Orange (Maclura pomifera). The large, dense, wrinkled ball is actually an aggregate fruit composed of many one-seeded druplets. It looks a bit like an overgrown green mulberry, to which it is related. If you smash one on the ground, it splinters into many shards, releasing a milky juice. The tree is native to the Red River Valley area of southeastern Oklahoma and northeastern Texas, home of the Osage tribe. The "orange" part of "Osage Orange" comes from the orange-peel smell of the skin. Another name for the tree is "bowwood." The wood is so strong and dense that it will not rot or succumb to termites for decades. The Osage used it for archery bows and many archers still consider it the finest wood in the world for bows. Early settlers used it for fence posts. The tree transplants easily and tolerates poor soil, extreme heat and strong winds. In the mid-nineteenth century, Midwestern farmers planted the trees as a living fence. The name "hedge apple" comes from the practice of pruning the tree into a hedge so that the thorny branches form a natural livestock barrier that had to be "horse high, bull strong and hog tight." This practice stopped with the introduction of barbed wire in the 1880s, but many of the old trees can still be found in fence rows here in Iowa and others have naturalized in pastures and along gravel roads.
We live south of a road called Osage, but there are no Osage Orange trees growing along that road. Perhaps they were cut down. I feel fortunate that we have several growing along our boundary line. The female tree bears bounteous hedge apples every year, which are so heavy that the thorny branches bend low. Squirrels love the seeds. They sit patiently on the ground to rip apart the tough, stringy fruit and chew through the slimy husk to get at each individual seed, leaving a messy pile of shredded hedge apple. Only the seeds are edible by humans, but most of us don't have the patience of a squirrel.