Test Your Knowledge - December

Two Osage orange fruit
Osage oranges
Joseph M. DiTomaso, University of California - Davis, Bugwood.org

Yes. This is an Osage orange!

It is also known by several other common names, including hedge apple, hedge ball, Osage apple, mock orange, horse apple and monkey-brain. These hard, 4- to 6-inch-wide, inedible fruit develop from small clusters of greenish white flowers that generally appear in June, although they are not very noticeable. The fruit fall from the tree in October and November, which is when most people become aware of them, sometimes painfully so if they are standing or sitting under the tree at the time. The Osage oranges contain a milky-looking juice that can irritate the skin when they are handled.

Osage oranges on the ground under a tree
Osage orange fruit that have fallen from a tree
Richard Webb, Self-employed horticulturist, www.insectimages.org

The Osage orange is known botanically as a multiple fruit. True multiple fruits arise when numerous individual fruit (each arising from a separate flower in a cluster of flowers) merge together to form a single mass. Oftentimes, a multiple fruit has a bumpy or otherwise non-smooth surface, which provides a reminder of its formation from the fusion of many individual fruit. Other examples of multiple fruit are mulberries, pineapples, and figs.

Inconspicuous, female flowers of Osage orange tree
Inconspicuous, female flowers of Osage orange tree
Joseph M. DiTomaso, University of California - Davis, www.insectimages.org

In addition to the unusual looking fruit, the Osage orange tree (Maclura pomifera), a member of the mulberry family (Moraceae), is an interesting plant both historically and economically. A native of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, it was planted in hedgerows throughout large areas of the United States (including the South) in the 1800s. This use provided inexpensive, but effective fencing. The tree has since naturalized in many of the areas where it was planted.

Thorns and leaves on a branch of an Osage orange tree
The Osage orange tree’s thorns made it a good choice for growing in hedgerows.
Paul Wray, Iowa State University, www.insectimages.org

The wood of this tree is very hard and has been used to make furniture and fence posts, and by the Osage Indians to make hunting bows. Early French explorers, who noted the tree was being used to make bows, referred to the tree as “bois d’arc” (wood-of-the-bow), from which was derived another of the tree’s common names, bodark. During World War I when other sources of dye compounds became unavailable, the wood was used as a source of yellow dye to make khaki-colored Army uniforms. In addition, the wood is highly resistant to decay, possibly due to an antifungal agent found in the wood.

Osage orange is a fast-growing tree that prefers full sun and is hardy in zones 5 – 9a. It is dioecious (i.e. has separate male and female trees). It is a very hardy tree that transplants easily and once established is very tolerant of a wide variety of growing conditions including drought. If desired for planting, choose a male tree to eliminate the problem of messy fruit. Nearly thornless, male cultivars (‘Wichita’, ‘White Shield’, ‘Double O’, and ‘Park’) are available.

J. McLeod Scott
Home & Garden Information Center

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This information is supplied with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service is implied. All recommendations are for South Carolina conditions and may not apply to other areas. Use pesticides only according to the directions on the label. All recommendations for pesticide use are for South Carolina only and were legal at the time of publication, but the status of registration and use patterns are subject to change by action of state and federal regulatory agencies. Follow all directions, precautions and restrictions that are listed.