Osage Orange

It’s fall and Osage oranges (maclura pomifera) litter the ground in certain places including Mt. San Angelo at this time of year. Though some may think they’re a nuisance, especially if that someone’s VCCA’s Artist-in-Residence David Garratt who’s charged with picking them up, others admire their vivid green hue, knobbly surface and pungent aroma.

It is thought that the tree once grew throughout the eastern United States, but its range was significantly reduced (to the Midwest and Texas) before the arrival of the European settlers. Part of the reason for this was human overuse, but it’s also theorized that the large mammal responsible for the plant's seed dispersion, possibly a giant sloth, became extinct. 

Osage oranges aren’t poisonous though nobody seems to want to eat them. The exception being some squirrels and the occasional horse, which has been known to nosh on an orange, hence the name, horse apple. For a plant that relies on seed dispersal this can be tricky, unless you have a helping hand from an outside source. 

And that "hand" came in the form of Meriwether Lewis who famously re-introduced Osage oranges to the eastern United States by sending Thomas Jefferson cuttings of the tree discovered on the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition. Jefferson loved the tree, planting it on the UVA campus and at Monticello. By the mid-19th century the Osage orange had become the most commonly planted plant in America. 

The tree had been discovered much earlier, of course, by Native Americans who highly prized the wood’s suppleness and used if for making bows. This explains why French settlers called it bois d'arc. Bodock and bodark (other names for the tree) are clearly bastardizations of the French. Monkey ball, another name, must be a result of the fruit’s funny appearance. 

On the great plains, Osage oranges, often referred to as hedge apples were planted close together not only to provide windbreaks, but also to fence cattle pastures, the trees’ prodigious thorns deterring even the most eager escapee. The tree remained in use in this fashion until the introduction of barbed wire in the 1880s. 

Before you go slamming the Osage, you should know that it was also used as a very effective tool during the Dust Bowl years to combat soil erosion. FDR’S Great Plains Shelterbelt WPA Project launched in 1934 saw the planting of 30,233 shelterbelts containing 220 million trees many of them Osage oranges. 


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