The Osage Orange

It must have been a good year for osage orange trees in eastern Kansas. Their large, globular fruit seems to be especially abundant in the tangled, leafless trees that edge the cropfields and pastures along I-70. Native to the Red River Valley of Texas and Oklahoma, the osage orange was found to be an ideal tree for windbreaks and fence rows and is thus widely planted on the Great Plains; hard, rot resistant wood and interlacing, thorny branches provided natural fencing for early ranchers. The tree, a member of the mulberry family, is also planted as an ornamental in other parts of the country; since it is both drought tolerant and prolific, the osage orange readily naturalizes and can become a nuisance.

The fruit, also known as a hedge apple, develops with a green, nodular surface and remains on the tree until late October or November; by that time, it has taken on a faded yellow color and, adorning the bare woodlands, seems to be a harbinger of the coming holidays. The large globes, which contain 200 or more seeds, are nearly inedible due to their milky, acidic juice and tough, fibrous pulp; the seeds themselves are eaten by squirrels and mice.

Arborists caution homeowners to choose a male tree for ornamental plantings; the abundant fruit, borne solely on the female trees, collects on the ground in rotting masses. I personally recall using them during my boyhood in Cincinnati; we called them "stink bombs" and launched them at imaginary invaders from the safety of our tree fort.