Hedge apples are falling all across America at this time of the year. Despite what your grandparents might have told you, the “hedge apples” that fall from the tree are NOT poisonous. The tree is commonly known amongst the arborist as the “Osage Orange”. Despite its name it’s only very distantly related to the orange tree and is instead a member of the mulberry family. The Osage-orange is actually native to a small area in eastern Texas, southeastern Oklahoma, and southwestern Arkansas. This region was also the home of the Osage Indians, hence the common name of Osage-orange. White settlers moving into the region found that the hedge tree possessed several admirable qualities. It is a tough and durable tree, transplants easily, and tolerates poor soils, extreme heat, and strong winds. It also has no serious insect or disease problems. During the mid-nineteenth century, it was widely planted by midwest farmers, massive amounts were actually planted in southern Iowa, as a living fence. When pruned into a hedge, it provided an impenetrable barrier to livestock. The widespread planting of Osage-orange stopped with the introduction of barbed wire. Below are some other fun facts you can tell the kids. (Source: Missouri Department of Conservation and Wiki)
Earliest documentation of the trees were made by the French settlers along the Mississippi River in the early-1800s. The trees were initially named “bow-wood”, from early French settlers who observed the wood being used for war clubs and bow-making by Native Americans. Meriwether Lewis was told that the people of the Osage Nation and the Comanches had so much esteem for the wood of this tree for the purpose of making their bows, that they would travel many hundreds of miles in quest of it. In fact there are still many modern day archers who assert the wood of the Osage orange is superior even to English Yew in making their bow.
Naming the tree the “Osage orange” was thought to come about because it was common in the land of the Osage Indian tribe and the appearance of large green oranges on the tree. Many settlers later began to call these trees “hedges” because the vegetative barriers their plantings formed were similar to the hedgerows many farmers in Europe utilized.
Amazing strength is seen in the Osage Orange, something that made it ideal for early ranchers and settlers to use as a fence posts. The wood is heavy, hard, strong, and flexible, capable of receiving a fine polish and very durable when in contact with the ground. Palmer and Fowler’s Fieldbook of Natural History 2nd edition rates Osage orange wood as being 2.5 times as hard as white oak and having twice the tensile strength.
Popularity of the hedge tree as a field barrier spawned the formation of a number of hedge nurseries in the mid-1800s and created a booming market for the seeds. In the 1860s, the price for Osage orange seeds soared to $50 a bushel. In one year, 18,000 bushels of hedge seeds — enough, according to one report, “to plant 100,000 miles of hedge rows” — was shipped to the Pacific Northwest. By 1879, it was reported that Monroe and Nodaway counties in north Missouri each had more than 2,000 miles of hedgerows.
Stopping soil erosion was one of President Roosevelt’s main objectives. To make this happen President Roosevelt enacted the “Great Plains Shelterbelt” WPA project, which was launched in 1934 as an ambitious plan to modify weather and prevent soil erosion in the Great Plains states, and by 1942 resulted in the planting of 30,233 shelterbelts containing 220 million trees that stretched for 18,600 miles, primarily of the Osage Orange variety. The sharp-thorned trees were also planted as cattle-deterring hedges before the introduction of barbed wire.
Locations of the trees are now in all 48 contiguous states and parts of southern Canada. In the beginning, the trees were primarily located in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and parts of Missouri.
Larger varieties have been established across America. I hadn’t realized it, but some of these trees actually get 60 feet tall in parts of our nation. The largest Osage orange tree is located at River Farm, in Alexandria, Virginia, and is believed to have been a gift from Thomas Jefferson. Another historic tree is located on the grounds of Fort Harrod, a Kentucky pioneer settlement in Harrodsburg, Kentucky.
Eating the fruit or “hedge apples” as they are often called is not poisonous to humans or livestock. However, it appears to be mostly inedible due to its taste and its extremely hard texture. The seeds of the fruit are edible and it is sometimes torn apart by squirrels to get at the seeds, but few other native animals make use of it as a food source. There are some theories that the Osage orange fruit was eaten by a giant ground sloth that became extinct shortly after the first human settlement of North America. Other extinct Pleistocene megafauna, such as the mammoth, mastodon, and gomphothere, may have fed on the fruit.
Trimming the hedge is somewhat important in order to help it keep it in bounds. Keep in mind the shoots of a single year will grow 3 to 6 feet in length. Also inters tin his the fact this tree is remarkably free from insect enemies and fungal diseases.
Building a fire with the hedge tree, I’m sure it has been tried by many of us. When dried, the wood has the highest BTU content of any commonly available North American wood and burns long and hot. The problem, however, is that the wood throws off some serious sparks and is prone to popping, sending sparks and small embers several feet from the fire.