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Straight Stalk

Current crop information updates and research highlights

A Tree with Many Names and an Interesting History

It started with a phone call. The caller said "Several years ago a friend gave me some unusual fruit to put in my cabinet to keep away spiders. Can you tell me what it was and where I can get some more?" I am not sure how this call ended up with me but as a public servant I wanted to help, if I could. The caller could not supply much more information, so I started guessing. "Could it have been hedge apple?" The caller said that did not sound familiar. I countered with, "Osage orange?" "Yes!" was the response.

Maclura pomifera is the Latin name for the Osage orange tree and is a member of the Mulberry family. It has many other regional names. In addition to Osage orange some of the other names for this tree and its fruit are; hedge apples, horse apples, bois d'arc, mock orange, bodark and bowwood. One of my colleagues even shared a name for the fruit that I had not heard before, monkey brains.

The Osage orange is a native tree of the south-central US. In the mid-19th century farmers across the Midwest started planting it around their fields and pastures. The tree is very disease resistant, grows fast and produces a lot of thorns. Thickly planted around fields it forms a living "barbed wire" fence to keep livestock in or out of an area. One of the main proponents for the adoption of Osage orange was Jonathan Baldwin Turner, for whom Turner Hall on the University of Illinois campus was named. In the 1830s, Turner was a young professor at Illinois College in Jacksonville, IL. He was looking for a way to fence the open prairies of western Illinois where trees to create split-rail fences were scarce. His research found that Osage orange seedlings planted 12 inches apart would create a hedge row big enough and thorny enough to contain horses and cattle. Horse high, pig tight and bull strong became the colorful definition of a good fence.

The first patent for real barbed wire was issued in 1867 but was not widely adopted until after Joseph F. Glidden patented a mass produced version in 1874. Even after barbed wire became widely available in the 1880s, the Osage orange was still highly valued to create rot resistant wooden fence posts for the wire fences. The trees are still common across Illinois but numbers have declined as farmers remove old fence rows to increase field sizes.

Because Osage orange has male and female plants, not every tree will have the distinctive yellow-green hedge apples in the fall. Folk tales attribute almost mythic pest control properties to the fruit. Research has actually extracted chemicals from the fruit with repellant properties but at concentrations too low to be effective. You may spot the fruit for sale at fall flea markets and festivals. I have even seen it in the produce section of a grocery store in Iowa. I can't recommend them for pest control but if you decide to try them, remember that they will rot and squirrels may tear them apart. Also, be careful handling them, the sap is known to cause irritation and itching for some people.

Growing up in rural Illinois hedge apples and Osage orange thorns were just part of the experience. Understanding how they got here creates a link to this agricultural legacy in our landscape.


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