Osage Ball In The Road

I find it hard to believe, as scientists say, that the gnarly Osage orange tree (Maclura pomifera) isn’t a native of this area. It certainly seems right at home in the bottomland woods and along the roadsides. The dense and hard yellow-orange wood was once used as a raw material for bows by the Osage Indians, thus the name. I’ve used the wood for the sides and backs of several stringed musical instruments.

The tree has an ungainly and crooked growth aspect, as if the species just doesn’t give a hoot about our arboreal aesthetic preferences, saying, in effect, “I’ve been here a hell of a lot longer than you have, you short-lived and fragile creatures! Go ahead, make fence posts of us! We’ll still be around long after your absurdly consumptive civilization has gone the way of all empires!”

The tree is locally known as hedge, after its historical use as an animal-proof hedgerow tree. Some of these hedges, dating back to the late 19th century, linger on.

The fruit is truly weird, a bumpy fissured greenish ball about four to six inches in diameter. Cells contain the seeds which float in an acrid milky sap. Deer and squirrels shred the fruits and evidently derive some nourishment from them. I’ve never been tempted.

I remember standing by a pasture fence one time yarning with an old farmer. He pointed at a tree growing out in the overgrazed pasture; it was an Osage orange. He said:

“I remember when I was a kid we’d hit those ol’ hedge balls with a baseball bat out into that pasture. See that tree? It sprouted from one of those balls.”

There is a theory that trees with abnormally large fruits, such as Osage orange, paw paw, and avocado, are survivors from the Pleistocene period, when large herbivorous mammals such as Giant Ground Sloths walked over the plains and savannahs of North and Central America. The idea is that the large fruits would have been consumed whole by these animals and the seeds distributed far and wide in the animals’ dung. A theory difficult to prove or disprove!

A few days ago I was driving along a winding gravel road. I emerged from a wooded lowland stretch and rounded a curve. An Osage orange fruit sat in the middle of the road. There’s not much traffic on the road and it had yet to be run over.

I pulled over and got out my camera. I laid myself down in a prone position on the white dusty road and regarded the fruit from an eye-to-eye vantage point, so to speak. Once again I was struck by the weird, unearthly appearance of the fruit. Here’s a view:

Notice the fragments of limestone gravel adhering to the fissured sphere. The ball had evidently been given glancing blows by passing tires and rolled around, but it was undamaged. It occurred to me that a cunning squirrel had perhaps rolled the fruit out into the road, hoping a passing vehicle would crush it and make the seeds more readily available. Stranger things have happened!




Filed under Natural History, Photos, Quincy

5 responses to “Osage Ball In The Road

  1. bev

    I’ve never seen an Osage Orange tree, but have heard the wood mentioned from time to time, but can’t recall the context. What a neat and neat-looking fruit! I’m thinking there must be a song in this… a chorus line that runs something like “Osage ball in the middle of the road”. The seed dispersal theories sound quite plausible. I shall have to look at photos of the trees and then watch for them while crossing the states this autumn.
    Regarding the idea of a squirrel intentionally placing the ball on the roadway – probably not that impossible. After seeing the birds that left nuts of some kind on the pavement of a busy intersection, anything seems possible.. On a slightly different tack, at the campus where I used to work as a tutor, there was an incident involving gulls that discovered a nest of baby rabbits. They seized each rabbit and carried it aloft, then dropped it to the pavement to kill it before circling down to scoop up the remains. Unfortunate for the little rabbits, and traumatic for several students who were hit by plummeting bunnies.

  2. I was reminded of a song as well, Bev — in particular, an odd country novelty song called “Dead Skunk On The Side of the Road” — stinkin’ to high heaven, as I recall.

    Interesting bunny tale, which reminded me of accounts of raptors seizing tortoises (in the Mediterranean or North African regions, perhaps?) and dropping them from high in the air in order to shatter their shells.

  3. bev

    It was the Dead Skunk song that came to mind to me too.

    I can definitely see how dropping things to smash them would be an adaptation of many winged creatures. Gulls and others sometimes drop clams to smash them on the rocks below. Now, picture the winged creature that would drop an Osage orange to smash it asunder? Perhaps one of the so-called Terror Birds?

  4. I can see the scene in my mind’s eye… Pleistocene mothers would warn their children to beware of the monstrous birds when they fly over. A rough translation from an archaic dialect:

    “Run and hide your head when they fly over, children! Remember what happened to your uncle Zook!”

  5. bev

    Now that puts me in mind of the Coulter Pine cones that I found scattered on the ground on the east side of the Sierras a couple of years ago. Picture a pineapple sized and shaped cone with razor-sharp curving talons. They don’t call those suckers “widowmakers” for nothing!

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