Common Name: Osage Orange, Hedge Apple, Horse Apple, Monkey Ball, Bodark, Bodock, Bowwood, and many more!
Scientific Name: Maclura pomifera
Family: Moraceae (the Mulberry or Fig family)
I love to read about plants that most people think are useless. Osage Orange is on the list of trees that many people see no need to have around. They have thorns, inedible fruit, and wood too hard to nail. But these thorny trees make a great livestock hedge, and the wood is perfect for fence posts and has the highest BTUs of any fuel wood in North America. The fruit has little to offer, but some swear it is a natural insect repellant and will keep a “hedge apple” under each bed in the house and in the basement. Osage Orange trees are fantastic windbreaks, are drought and flood tolerant, and provide shelter for nesting birds. This is probably not a tree for a small forest garden, but it is an ideal tree for a larger location especially if you want livestock hedgerows and a great fuel wood. I’ll keep this useless tree, thank you very much!
Native to the Red River drainage of Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas in the United States, Osage Orange was widely spread through the United States and Canada in the 1930-40’s as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Great Plains Shelterbelt” project to combat the erosion and drought resulting in the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. It can now be found in all 48 states on the contiguous United States.
- Osage Orange are not related to oranges, but the fruit does have a citrus-like fragrance.
- The word “Osage” is in reference to the Osage Nation, a Native American tribe that originated in the Ohio River Valley but migrated west to the northern border of this tree’s natural range (Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma). It was told to Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame) that the people of the Osage Nation “so much … esteem the wood of this tree for the purpose of making their bows, that they travel many hundreds of miles in quest of it.”
- Another name for the Osage Orange is bois d’arc which is French for “wood of the bow”.
- The other names for Osage Orange are Bodark and Bodock, which are likely corruptions of the French name.
- Osage Orange wood rivals yew for the top bow wood in the world. At one point, a good Osage Orange bow was equal in value to a horse and a blanket.
- Osage Orange wood is very hard and dense – great for tool handles, crafts, furniture, etc. It needs to be pre-drilled before screwed. Nailing is almost impossible.
- Osage Orange resists rotting and insects – similar to cedar and black locust. An ideal wood for posts.
- The new stems on young trees have notable thorns. Osage Orange was used as living hedges before the invention of barbed wire. When grown closely together and pruned, these hedges were considered “bull strong, hog tight, and horse high”.
- Osage Orange is dioecious (have male and female plants), but the female plant (pistillate) will still produce fruit without pollination… it just lacks seeds! The trees take about 10 years to mature, and it is not really possible to determine gender of the tree before then (i.e. before flowering and fruiting).
- It is odd that such a large fruit is not a regular food source for animals. The seeds are extracted by rodents, but not much else. It is believed that the fruit of Osage Orange was a food source, maybe a prime food source, for giant sloths and mammoths of the Pleistocene (which ended about 12,000 years ago).
- The fruit is considered an aggregate fruit (like its relative the mulberry) composed of many one-seeded drupes.
- It is said that the fruit has a natural pest-repelling ability, but the proof of this is hard to verify. It is most commonly reported to repel cockroaches. I have a strong dislike of cockroaches, even if I see their role in the environment, so my home will have Osage Orange fruits for sure!
USING THIS PLANT
- Windbreak – historically, this was its claim to fame, and its reason for spread over the continent
- Edible Seeds – reportedly tasts like raw sunflower seeds. Can be eated raw or roasted. They are difficult to obtain. The fruit is not edible.
- Hedge – can be grown closely together to make a living hedge impenetrable by livestock (see Trivia above). When grown as a hedge, plant them no more than 4-5 feet apart. They can always be thinned later if needed. When grown this close together, the trees will grow more like tall shrubs, typically not growing taller than 20 feet (6 meters).
- Wildlife Shelter – cover and nesting sites for small mammals and birds.
- Wildlife Food Source – squirrels love the seeds! Not many other animals eat this fruit.
- Drought tolerant once established
- Maritime tolerant – can tolerate conditions near oceans or large salt-water bodies
- Flood tolerant – this tree can withstand occasional flooding (this makes sense as it originates in the floodplain of the Red River floodpains.
- Wood – posts, crafts, furniture, tool handles, archery bows (Osage Orange is not typically harvested for lumber considering that it can be small, knotty, and crooked).
- Fuel – Osage Orange is fast growing and its wood has the highest BTU content of any North American wood (wood that is commonly available, that is). It is very dense, so it burns long and hot – like anthacite coal. It weighs 4,700-4,800+ lbs (2,130-2,175 kg) per cord and produces 30-32+ million BTU (British Thermal Units) per cord. Amazing! Note that it does spark (like Black Locust) and needs to be in a closed stove or enclosed fireplace if used indoors. It also does not light easily, and works best on a fire that has an established bed of coals.
- Coppice Plant – at least one good source states that Osage Orange “sprouts vigorously from the stump”.
- Pollution tolerant – Osage Orange can tolerate poor quality air, soil, and water in urban areas.
- Pioneer Plant – helps reestablish overused or damaged land
- Ornamental Plant – there are a number of thornless male cultivars sold as an ornamental
Yield: Not applicable.
Harvesting: Not applicable.
Storage: Not applicable.
DESIGNING WITH THIS PLANT
AHS Heat Zone: Zone 10-1
Chill Requirement: Possible, but no reliable information is available, and as this is not a typical food plant, this is not as important.
Plant Type: Large Shrub to Small/Medium-Sized Tree
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Canopy Layer, Sub-Canopy Layer, Shrub Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: There are a few cultivars that have been developed, mainly for ornamental use.
Pollination: Osage Orange is dioecious – meaning that there are male and female plants. Typically, one pale will pollinate up to eight females for fruit production (if that is desired). Pollinated by the wind.
Flowering: Late Spring to early Summer.
No good information available, but there are a number of trees in North America that are between 200-300 years old.
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THIS PLANT
Roots: Taproot is most typical. One specimen had roots more than 27 feet (8.2 meters) deep! If grown in shallow soils, the roots can spread laterally. The lateral roots can grow at or above the soil surface. There are multiple sources that state Osage Orange can be transplanted easily, and to me this implies that the taproot establishes itself a bit later as most trees with taproots do not tolerate transplanting well.
Growth Rate: Medium-Fast
GROWING CONDITIONS FOR THIS PLANT
Shade: Tolerates little shade
Moisture: Dry to wet soils.
pH: 4.5-??? (tolerates a very wide range of soil conditions)
Special Considerations for Growing:
- Osage Orange prefers moist soils, but it will grow in just about any condition.
- It is likely that Osage Orange is tolerant of juglone (a natural growth inhibitor produced by Black Walnut and its relatives), so consider growing Osage Orange as a buffer between your Black Walnut and other plantings.
Fairly easy from seed… if you can get the seed! Most people soak the whole fruit in a bucket of water until it gets mushy. The seeds can be separated out of the fruit much easier then. The seeds can be sown immediately or stored for up to 3 years. Pre-soaking stored seeds for 48 hours in warm water and 6-8 weeks of cold stratification may help germination – this mimics the natural wet and cold Winter. Can also be propagated via cuttings of new growth in Summer and old growth or roots in Winter (when dormant). Osage Orange can be propagated via layering as well.
Minimal. Regular pruning if desired, but Osage Orange is virtually pest and disease free.
- The large fruit which are not consumed by most animals can make a large mess
- While many people have claimed that Osage Orange fruits are poisonous and have killed their livestock, numerous studies have shown this to be false. However, there have been a number of cases where cattle or horses have choked to death on the large fruit.
- This plant has thorns! This can be used to our advantage, but this needs to be kept in mind when planting this tree.
- There have been a few reports of people having allergic-type skin reactions to the milky sap in the stems and fruit.
- Dispursive – Osage Orange can grow well from seed and can spread easily.
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