This plant was once used to make impressive, thorny hedgerows along homesteads of the first European settlers in the Midwest. Its giant fruits are large and yellowish-green and resemble what might be the brains of a zombie. The wood, known as bois d’arc by French hunters, was used regularly by the Osage and Comanche tribes to make bows for hunting. In the late Pleistocene glacial period, its seeds were distributed by giant megafauna like Gomphotheres (look it up!), Giant Ground Sloths, and Mastodons. Can you guess what plant I’m talking about? It’s the Osage Orange.
Sometimes considered a nuisance plant, the Osage Orange is native to parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and southern Missouri. Now naturalized across much of the Eastern United States, Osage Orange can be found in many pastures on rich soils. Its characteristic bark has a slight orange tint upon maturity, which is the origin of its namesake. Compounds in the tree also prevent fungal and pest infections, making it a great tree to use for fences. Its sharp thorns were the perfect predecessor to barbed wire.
Osage Orange was sent to President Thomas Jefferson as part of Merriweather Lewis’ discoveries on his and Clark’s journeys out west. Lewis brought back more than 200 plant specimens now preserved in the Lewis and Clark Herbarium at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Some of the Osage Orange trees in Philadelphia and the University of Virginia are likely descendants of some of the cuttings Lewis sent to Jefferson as part of their expedition. The largest Osage Orange tree grows in Virginia.
The fruit of the Osage Orange is known as a hedgeapple. It should be said that not all Osage Orange trees produce the hedgeapple since Osage Orange is dioecious. This means Osage Orange trees have separate male and female trees and only female trees produce fruit.
There are several ethnobotanical uses of hedgeapples. It has been said that placing them under your house or in sinks can help repel pesky bugs like spiders. The scientific evidence for the bug-repellant has yet to be proven, although some companies still make insect repellant with the essential oils of the Osage Orange. There are few other ethnobotanical benefits of the Osage Orange, evidence suggests that the Comanche tribe used the roots of the Osage Orange to treat conditions affecting the eyes. Early Mississippian cultures (pre-Columbian settlements of North American Indians) may have even flourished due in part to the trading of raw building and medicinal materials from the Osage Orange.
If you see the Osage Orange around town or in your neighborhood you can now appreciate all the history that is associated with this unique and interesting tree. If its too hard for you to appreciate the historical uses, at least the hedgeapple can be thrown at your little brother or sister.