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!