Maclura pomifera

It’s nearing the end of the year, so it’s time for what’s becoming an annual tradition — an image of osage-orange. For previous entries on this species from BPotD (along with many additional links), see: Maclura pomifera in 2007 and Maclura pomifera in 2008.

Lindsay B. wrote the rest of today’s entry:

Thanks to Vicki’s Pics@Flickr for submitting today’s photograph (original | BPotD Flickr Group Pool)!

The species producing this unusual-looking fruit is native to southeastern North America, from Arkansas to Texas along the Red River watershed. Another common name for osage-orange is hedge-orange, referring to its use as a barbed hedge before the advent of barbed wire.

Pollen samples have indicated that Maclura pomifera had a much wider range during earlier ice-free phases of Cenozoic history. Although the fruit is large, it is mostly inedible to humans–the fruit is harsh, hard, dry and astringent. Plants for a Future lists the juice extract as toxic. These are curious features, because large fleshy fruits tend to be associated with seed dispersal by animals. This has led some researchers to investigate if seed dispersal of osage-orange previously occurred via animals that are now extinct. Connie Barlow discusses this possibility in the article Anachronistic Fruits and the Ghosts Who Haunt Them (PDF), published in the Arnold Arboretum’s journal, Arnoldia.

Maclura pomifera

31 responses to “Maclura pomifera”

  1. Karisoo

    Here in New Mexico (and probably elsewhere) the traditional use for “horse apples” is as a cockroach deterrent. I personally think they are quite beautiful and could be alien brains.

  2. Luc Vleeracker

    They can be found as far south as San Luis Potosi , Mexico. A relative of my wife brought one down to Puerto Vallarta , knowing I grow – collect rare fruits. One seed made it into a seedling , dead slow growing ( not the right climate )dropped it’s leaves now , not sure if this is normal in the winter or that it just gave up struggling against the tropical climate..

  3. carol Shelton

    Another aspect of osage orange that I never see mentioned is what happens when you put a log of it in the fireplace. It spits out burning pieces of wood onto your nicely carpeted floors.

  4. Robin

    They may be native primarily to the Southeast US, but they grow up here on the “north coast” near Cleveland happily. As a child I saw them all ovewr in Pennsylvania — we used to dribble them around the field hockey field while running laps at school — and subsequently in the high elevations (7000′) near Santa Fe, NM.

  5. Betty(VA)

    Very Interesting! Love the colors!

  6. Michelle

    The photos are wonderful and the comments are endlessly fascinating.

  7. Doug Moyer

    Are they toxic to other animals? They’re all over the place at my parents’ farmette in eastern Kansas. My father uses his tractor to shake them out of trees in the pasture so he can collect them off of the ground – his ancient horse keeps trying to eat them. (The horse is so old that he can only eat a specially prepared mush, but that doesn’t stop him from trying…) I assumed that my father did that because the horse couldn’t chew, not because the hedge apples were toxic…
    Here in Roanoke, Virginia (where hedge apples are not nearly as common as they are in Eastern Kansas) they are sold at the farmers’ market for their aromatic/ornamental properties. The vendor also claims they repel spiders…
    According to this website, “Elemol, a sesquiterpene extracted from the fruit of the Osage orange, shows excellent promise as a mosquito repellent with comparable activity to DEET in contact and residual repellency.”

  8. Daniel Mosquin

    What I find most curious (and interesting) about this species is that a lot of people have stories about it. Despite being inedible, there is a shared cultural history from those who have encountered it. Very neat.

  9. Kevin Carroll

    I grew up in western Pennsylvania and we used to call them monkey balls. I now live in the midwest and you can still see hedge rows of old osage orange trees that farmers used to plant, I guess to keep larger animals out of their fields. They can get some nasty thorns.

  10. Mary Wilson

    Years ago, a botanist and historian told me Osage orange trees were rare and initially spread by early surveyors (i.e. from Jeffersonian times when land surveying was spreading westward. Surveyors found stakes etc rotted too fast, stones were pulled down and planting a tree not common in the area was a way of confirming surveying marks.( One could be more sure of a mark if you found all three together. In Minnesota Osage orange was used commonly for this purpose.. We had one tree on the neighbors farm next to us along the Mississippi. (I wonder what other tree species spread this way?..Yet I don’t know if this is historic fact or not..Any plant historians out there? (My source was John Peterson )

  11. elizabeth a airhart

    the osage indian nation has a fine website
    worth a visit the wood makes fine bows
    fences surely on the way west and the settlements
    mine went out early by wagon train miles and
    miles of trees and all the uses as walmarts
    were not handy nor lowes or the internet
    thank you just love the comments my nightly
    and early morning reading and a lot of links
    to follow thank you daniel and company

  12. Floater

    I read Barlow’s article, and I wonder if Franklinia alatamaha may have suffered the same fate as the Florida Torreya. I know it will grow far north of the its last known site (c. 1765) on the Altamaha River in Georgia. What would its dispersal agent have been?

  13. Bob

    I too grew up with these “monkey balls” in the Pittsburgh area. As boys we would hurl them at each other but being ungainly and sticky we were not accurate so no serious injuries to report. I have seen them common in southern Michigan and not so common, but occasional in Northern Virignia where I now live.

  14. Sara Jane Spaulding

    The squirrels eat them in our yard in DE. Another dispersal method?

  15. Allan

    The squirrels tear ours open to get at the seeds. There are huge piles of them in our yard now, but in a couple of months they will all be torn to bits.

  16. Walt

    One summer I was taking care of a professor’s yard in central Indiana while he and family took an extended car trip out west. I was to use his riding mower on the lawn except where it started getting close to two large Osage orange trees. To mow that portion I was instructed to shift to a regular push mower and wear heavy soled boots to protect my feet against thorns that had fallen to the ground.

  17. Quin

    my Pop called the tree ‘Bois d’arc’, have also heard them called ‘Mastodon Food’

  18. Leeland

    I remember rolling these down the hill in my parents yard here in Ohio every fall into the ditch to let them rot. Funny how a chore I hated as a kid now has such fond memories.

  19. Annie in Texas

    I think I posted last year that we also call them ‘horse apples’ here on the Texas Gulf Coast. We used them for improvised ball games and chunking at the neighbor boys when they got too close to our ‘all girls’ tree house. When I was a child, many decades ago, they seemed to be everywhere, but I don’t see them so much any more.

  20. Howard

    There is an Osage orange in a park in Cardiff. UK. Every autumn people pick the fruits up and take them to a Park Keeper to ask what it is.The staff get more questions about this one strange fruit than anything else in the park. It is rather rare in Britain.

  21. Robert Mussey

    I grew up in Central Illinois farm country, where half-mile long hedgerows of these were planted during the depression as windbreaks and hedgerows. As a boy, I used to love to bushwhack along these almost impenetrable thickets because they are outstanding wildlife and bird habitat.
    The fruits were locally called “monkey balls”, and our favorite sport was playing baseball with them — bat meeting fruit resulted in a gleeful spray of sticky white “milk”, like milkweed.
    When I learned to make hand-made double-recurve bows for hunting, the primary wood for laminating the curved limbs of the bow was osage orange. This followed Native American tradition of making bows from the tree. Hence the name “bois d’arc”, perverted in the Southwest and Texas to the “bow dark” tree, pronounced with a long drawl.
    Sadly, the Illinois hedgerows have been bulldozed and burned in recent years to make more room for corn and soybeans — and ethanol. A very sad loss.
    The wood is among the densest, heaviest of North American woods, a beautiful deep orange with black veins when freshly cut. As it oxidizes and ages with a finish, it turns to a deep warm brown. Makes outstanding lathe-turned handles and other decorative objects – I made my chisel handles out of them — they’ve lasted a lifetime, even with heavy use.

  22. Vivi Leavy

    There was a huge old osage orange tree on the campus of Haverford College when I was a small child. We called it ‘the climbing tree’ because of it’s low spreading branches. It was our jungle gym.

  23. Jim Irish

    Here in central Jersey there are remnants of many old osage orange hedgerows. Cut logs make good firewood. It is very tight grained and heavy and dense. It is hard to split and you don’t get too many pieces from any one tree. Lookout about bringing in the monkey balls for ornamental fruits in the house. It takes only a short time before the fruit flies get all over them.

  24. John Detwiler

    I grew up in southern Alabama and we called these fruit MOCK ORANGES. The trees were were used to make fence post since the would last forever. We also put them in the cuboards to keep the roaches out. They were also used to play baseball with except when you hit a home run and smashed it to bits with the bat.

  25. melanie watts

    I’ve never seen anything like this before. Not hardy where I live I suppose. It’s very interesting to read about it.

  26. Gerry

    Thank you for the link to the great article!

  27. Connie

    The scent- what a memory jogger! I use these in autumn flower arrangements. They don’t last long.

  28. Dana

    Maclura pomifera! Great Tree! Wood is tough for fenceposts, Hedge Apples (can be grown as a hedge?) Horse Apples (loved by horses??) Bois d’Arc (pronounced Bowed Arc, also spelled Bodark) – french for how the Indians used the wood to make their bows, Osage Orange for it being native to Osage Indian territory.
    Daniel, you noted Plants for a Future lists it as toxic, but just because it is toxic to humans in no way means it is toxic to animals – case in point, Poison Ivy and goats, they eat it.
    One person mentioned her trees are being knocked down for ethanol, ours are being knocked down to put in Wal-Marts.

  29. Sam

    We always called it “brain fruit.”
    And I’ll second the sticky mess one makes when you get a piece of it with a bat.
    I was helping with a degraded site reclamation project (it was a barrow pit for years) and we had constant problems with ATVs coming in and doing donuts all over our grasses and straw and willows etc.
    So we threw these all over the site, planted honeylocust, threw allegheny blackberries around, and stuck hercules club cuttings all over the place. I left shortly thereafter, but I can’t imagine the ATVs want back there much anymore!

  30. Denis

    I grew up in SW Ohio and we called them “Monkey Brains”, not sure how that ended up “Monkey Balls” in our neighboring state to the east, but it wouldn’t be the most unusual difference between the two states.
    They were so widely planted and seemed to be such a part of the landscape that I was surprised to learn that they are endemic to only a single drainage in Texas. Their utility as a living fence (and dead fence posts) obviously become widespread.
    I wonder if there is a story behind that. Perhaps they were promoted by somebody with the USDA or a by a plant catalog company. Given the age of some of the ones I am familiar with, a stand in Eden Park not far from Krohn Conservatory in Cincinnati and and on the Maryhill Museum ground near Goldendale, Washington, they must have been widely spread around in the 19th Century.
    We would use them for late season softball practice.
    There is

  31. D.Allaby

    I was walking my west end Toronto neighbourhood and came across this tree growing on a front lawn. I wouldn’t have paid it much notice except for the unfamiliar fruit. Thought you might be interested to know it grows up in Ontario too.

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