Osage Orange


Osage Orange Tree RTE 15 10-24-04_LI
Osage orange fruits are difficult to spot high up in the canopy


Common NameOsage orange, Bodark apple, Bois d’arc, Hedge apple, Bow-wood, Yellow-wood, Mock orange, Prairie hedge – The Osage were the original Native American inhabitants of the tree’s indigenous range in the Southern Great Plains; orange relates to the general shape and size of its wrinkled fruit.

Scientific NameMaclura pomifera – William Maclure (1763-1840) is acclaimed as the father of American geology; the genus Maclura was assigned in recognition of his notable contributions to science. The species pomifera is from Latin pomifer meaning ‘fruit-bearing.’

Potpourri – The notion that Osage orange trees with their massive knobby fruit and thorny stems seem out of place and time is not without rationale; they are likely vestigial remnants of a bygone age. According to the fossil record there were once at least seven species of the Maclura genus that extended northward across a wide swath of the continent; environmental forcing factors eliminated all but M. pomifera and confined it to an indigenous range of eastern Texas and Oklahoma when only Native Americans roamed the prairies. Its renaissance as an introduced species throughout eastern North America is a matter of human intervention and ingenuity that was a byproduct of European colonization beginning in the 19th century; it was planted in thickets that served admirably as agricultural and livestock containment hedges. It is both a reminder of the past and a testimonial to the impact of civilization on the natural world.

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The huge fruits are thought to have been food for extinct megafauna

Barry Commoner’s parsimonious rule about the intricacies of nature’s provenance is that ‘everything is connected to everything else;” it is one of the four foundational principles of ecology (the others are: everything must go somewhere; there is no free lunch; and nature knows best). Nothing exists absent a means of reproducing, a source of nutrition, and some measure of protective defense against predation within a closed ecology defined by its constituents. For plants, this generally but not universally means fertilized seed dispersal for germination, roots (and usually mycorrhizal fungi) to acces water and mineral resources, and chemical sometimes abetted by structural protection from grazers. In assessing the relative merits of the Osage orange tree and its ungainly fruit, one is literally impaled on the “thorns” of an ecological dilemma: the fruit is too big to eat and the thorns are too high and too far apart to ward off any extant herbivorous animal. How, then, did it come to be? The general consensus is that M. pomifera is a “ghost plant;” an inhabitant that once lived and lingers on as an ephemeral presence haunting its former haunt. While there is some speculation in this assertion, there is also some hard science.

It is well established in the fossil record that there were once over 40 species of now extinct megafauna, a neologism for any terrestrial animal weighing more than 100 pounds, which roamed the fields and forests of the Americas. Their presence is postulated as an evolutionary reaction to survival during the recurrent ice ages that characterized the Pleistocene Epoch that preceded the current Holocene (or Anthropocene once accepted) Epoch from 1.8 million to 10,000 years ago, a wink-of-an-eye in the billion year geological time scale. Why? Large bodies store more heat in a voluminous bulk relative to its loss over a relatively sparse surface area (volume is a cube of length; surface area is squared). The extinct megafauna were a virtual Noah’s Arc of diversity ranging from one ton armadillo-like glyptodonts to elephantine mastodons and mammoths weighing up to nine tons. The hypothesis is then that one or more of the megafauna with large appetites and larger maws were attracted to the fruit of the Osage orange but kept at bay from the tree due to its thorny armor. To determine whether living animals could spread the seed, the journal Southeastern Naturalist published a 2015 study in which elephants and horses were fed Osage oranges in addition to pawpaw and persimmon, two fruits with similar animal dispersal dilemmas.  There was no measurable benefit to Osage orange germination in passing through the gut of either animal. However demonstrative this may be, absent the discovery of a frozen mastodon with an Osage orange in its stomach, there can never be proof.

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The seeds are clearly visible in the center of the fruit

What happened to the Osage orange is evident; the range of the one remaining Maclura species gradually shrank to a microcosm of its former expanse; had it not been for human intervention, it may too have vanished. What happened to the megafauna is not evident; their extinction is a matter of considerable debate among archaeologists. Humans crossed from Asia on the Beringia land-bridge that emerged across the eponymous Bering Strait near the end of the last ice age some 12,000 years ago. Their diaspora throughout the Americas coincided in time with the megafaunal disappearance; it seems too much of a coincidence to question direct causality and that has long been the assertion. Due to extensive archaeological findings and a better understanding of climate change impacts, there is now considerable doubt as to the veracity of the operative syllogism ‘if they came then they killed.’ The climactic end of the Pleistocene was just that; ecosystems changed to adapt to the warmer weather that resulted. For the megafauna, it was certainly a time of gradual yet inexorable changes to the food supply that their bulk demanded; as the herbivores diminished, carnivores struggled. The anthropocentric view is that the Clovis people, named for their characteristic arrow point projectiles first discovered near Clovis, New Mexico in 1933, had mastered the art of hunting large animals and pursued their hapless quarry across the Americas and extirpated them in the relatively short time span of about 1,000 years.

There are a few problems with this theory. According to David Meltzer, an archaeologist who wrote First Peoples in a New World, there have been 76 sites found to date with bones and Clovis points collocated of which fourteen have clear signs of having been a meal. All of the bones are either mastodons or the closely related mammoths; the rest of the megafauna are missing. A more compelling observation concerns the fate of the most iconic of American megafauna; bison were hunted extensively and exclusively by many Native American tribes for centuries while their numbers expanded exponentially. A herd seen in Kansas in 1871 was estimated to contain 4 million individuals. The bison thrived because they evolved to consume the seas of coarse prairie grass that the warmer climate had favored; evidently the other megafauna did not. At a meeting of several hundred archaeologists in the early 1980’s only one person persisted in the overkill theory; all of the others felt that climate played a major and perhaps singular role. In Commoner’s terms, when climate changes nature knows best

Osage orange were apparent to the Native American tribes of their indigenous area; how could you miss a bright green-yellow softball-sized fruit that evolved to be readily recognized by animals as food? That the fruit and the tree are eponymous with the Osage Nation is the result of pidgin languages that result when two highly divergent cultures coincide. The early French explorers who first encountered the reportedly tall and fierce Indians supplied the Osage name, which supposedly was derived from a term meaning ‘warlike.’ The Osage, on the contrary, referred to themselves as Wazhazhe which means ‘People of the Middle Waters’ in their native Siouan language; they called the French I’n Shta Heh, ‘People with Heavy Eyebrows.’ The Osage name was subsequently given to the fruit, the tree, a river and at least one county. The Osage were forcibly removed from their original lands in Kansas to Indian Territory that became the state of Oklahoma in the 19th century where most of the 10,000 tribal members currently reside.

While the Native Peoples of the southern Great Plains region were aware that the fruit of the Osage orange tree was edible, there is no evidence that they ate them. Captain Merriweather Lewis wrote to President Jefferson on 26 March 1804 from St. Louis at the start of the epic journey of the Corps of Discovery across the continent that “An opinion prevails among the Osages that the fruit is poisonous, tho’ (sic) they acknowledge that they have never tasted it. They say that many animals feed on it.” The letter was accompanied by cuttings that Lewis had obtained from a prominent French creole fur trader named Choteau who was the founder of the first permanent settlement in the region now known as Kansas City. The significance of the tree was not the fruit, but the wood; according to Lewis in the same letter “So much do the savages esteem the wood of this tree for the purpose of making their bows, that they travel many hundred miles in quest of it.” Apparently the pungent smell of the fruit drew them to the tree renowned for the elasticity of its wood; the French adapted the name bois d’arc, French for ‘wood of the bow’ for the tree from which the calque word Bodark survives. The merits of Osage orange wood as the archer’s choice was pervasive; in addition to the Osage, Comanche, Kiowa, Seminole, Pima, Ponce, Pawnee, Blackfeet and Omaha were all bois d’arc aficionados. The bows were considered so valuable that it was reported in 1810 by the Scottish botanist John Bradbury that they fetched a horse and a blanket in barter; Bradbury is better known for being the only scientist who observed the 7.9 magnitude New Madrid earthquake in 1811.

The Osage orange is an indicator species for the transition of the American west from bodark bow-hunting Indians to sod-busting settlers. According to the USDA, it has been intentionally planted to a greater degree than any other tree species in North America. In addition to being an exceptional wood for bows, Osage orange is an exceptional wood for hedges, posts and wagons. Planting as an exotic species in the southern states followed its discovery in the early 19th century, the largest trees have historically been found in Virginia (the current record holder is at River Farm in Alexandria, Virginia). However, it was seriously advanced by the activism of Jonathon Baldwin Turner, an aspiring Yankee missionary and botanist who moved west in 1833 to become one of the founders of the University of Illinois. Recognizing the need to subdivide the prairies to make settlement and cultivation practical, he sought a windbreak tree or shrub to that end, settling on the Osage orange as the ideal candidate. With a patented soil conditioning machine and seeds, he promoted his living hedge idea in The Prairie Farmer in 1847, promising a barrier that was “horse high, bull strong and pig tight.” For the next twenty years, Osage orange hedges became so prevalent across the Midwest that the common names ‘prairie hedge’ and ‘hedge apple’ were adopted.

The accelerated westward expansion after the Civil War was the impetus for fencing the at did not depend on years of patient planting and tending of live hedges; barbed wire was first patented in1865 and manufactured in industrial scale factories by 1874. While this changed the nature of Osage orange tree use, it did not change the demand. Wire must be strung between posts as a matter of practical installation engineering. The wood of the Osage orange is the most decay resistant of all North American trees; its bitter principles are even repellent to termites. About 4,000 fence posts can be extracted from every mile of hedge, and over the course of the next several decades, the Wild West was corralled and maintained with new posts and wire. In Kansas alone, about 3 million Osage orange posts were produced per year. A renaissance of hedgerows occurred in the 1930’s as Roosevelt’s New Deal struggled to contend with the dust bowl conditions during the Great Depression. The Shelterbelt Project was initiated by executive order in 1934 to “modify climate and agricultural conditions in an area that is now consistently harassed by winds and drought.” The plan called for a 1,150 mile long swath of trees including Osage orange some 100 miles across extending from Canada to northern Texas; a grandiose scheme even in the era of Hoover Dam and the Empire State Building. In the peak year of 1938, over 4,000 miles of shelterbelts were planted as the Osage orange diaspora continued. Tree planting interest and effort waned shortly thereafter as the decadal drought ended; the physical climate moderated just as the political climate became stormy in 1940.

The decay resistance of Osage orange wood is attributable to an evolutionary history of mutation and survival according to the strictures of the surrounding ecology – a rather broad truth that applies to all species and to plants in particular. The sedentary plants that survive do so by making things like fleshy, aromatic fruits to take advantage of the mobility of animals for seed dispersal and by making their support structure resistant to bacteria, fungi and insects in more or less that order. The random nature of mutant effects is manifest in the resultant diversity. Osage orange is noted for its production of the isoflavones osajin and pomiferin, the names derived from Osage and Pomifera respectively. There has been considerable interest recently concerning the effect of osajin and pomiferin on human health, notably as antioxidants against free radicals and as anti-inflammation and anti-tumor agents. The insecticidal properties of Osage orange have been a matter of folklore for centuries; the autumnal fruits gathered and placed circumferentially to protect the home from infestation. Laboratory studies at Iowa State University confirmed that cockroaches, flies, and mosquitoes were repelled by chemical extracts and that sliced hedge apples placed in an enclosure had a repellent effect; there is no evidence that whole fruits deter insects in open air absent concentration effects. However, it may well be that the presence of alien-looking, redolent green fruits around a house would repel undesired human intruders like pilferers and panhandlers.