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Gardening: The fruit of the Osage orange tree has many odd reputed uses

Saturday, September 02, 2000

By Jeanie Parker

They look like green brains, lying in clusters along roadsides, from September through December.

Monkey balls are inedible to humans, but squirrels seem to love them. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette) 

In southwestern Pennsylvania, they're commonly called "monkey balls," but in other regions, this peculiar fruit and the trees from which they fall are known as hedge apples, bowwood, bois d'arc (French for "wood of the bow"), bodark, geelhout, mock orange, horse apple, naranjo chino, wild orange and yellow-wood.

The tree's official name is Osage orange. In Latin, it's Maclura pomifera, a member of the mulberry family named for American geologist William Maclure. In hedges, the tree usually grows no more than 20 feet high, but out in the open, it may grow as high as the national champion Osage orange tree, a 350- to 400-year-old beauty in Red Hill, Va. It's 54 feet high with a crown of 90 feet.

You won't find any like that around here. In fact, you see fewer every year as they die or are cut down. Charlotte Tancin, librarian and senior research scholar at Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation of Carnegie Mellon University, was unsure why the Osage orange had fallen upon hard times. But her call to fellow botanists over the Internet turned up lots of information and history on this odd plant.

Osage orange fruit, which has a fruity, citric fragrance, is inedible to humans, but squirrels seem to love it. The fruit has caused the death of quite a few cows and other livestock that try to swallow one whole. They lodge in the esophagus and block the digestive track.

Home Making:
The smell of monkey balls will keep away your friends, but not spiders

Jeanie Parker is a free-lance writer.

Some people are allergic and develop a rash if they touch the milky, white sap, which has been used as a glue and lacquer.

Besides the distinctive fruit and orange-yellow wood, Osage orange trees are known for their long, tire-flattening thorns. The male trees produce the pollen, and the female trees produce the fruit. Botanists are working on development of a male, thornless variety, for more friendly, modern landscaping.

Even though you can't eat them, Osage oranges have many uses. Locally, the fruit can be found at flea markets, on sale for as much as $2 a piece. In Iowa, Osage oranges are sold in supermarkets.

Why would people spend money on inedible, green, wrinkled fruit? Many swear that Osage oranges chase away all manner of bugs from a house. They set them in cupboards and behind furniture as natural exterminators. The fruit and wood of the Osage orange tree does contain tetrahydroxystilbene, an anti-fungicide that may deter insects.

Perhaps this chemical is what gives this dense wood its resistance to rot. It's an excellent wood for fence posts and is perfect for ship masts.

Because the wood of the Osage orange is strong, flexible and takes on a nice finish when polished, Native Americans used it for war clubs and bows.

Although Osage orange trees can be found throughout the Eastern states, they aren't native to our area. They were first found growing in the home of the Native American Osage tribe and the Osage Mountains in the south-central United States. There, in the warmer climate, Osage oranges actually turn orange, looking less like green brains and more like their citrus namesake.

One reason this nonnative is so common in Western Pennsylvania is that it was the original barbed wire fence. Pioneer farmers planted hedges of the thorny trees, which served as excellent windbreaks and barriers to keep cattle in (or out, depending on whose cattle they were). An Osage orange hedge was considered "horse-high, bull-strong, and pig-tight," according to historian Paul Landacre in "A Natural History of Western Pennsylvania."

Osage orange was widely planted throughout the Midwest during the mid-19th century. The plant even had its own Johnny Appleseed, two of them, actually. John A. Wright and Professor Jonathan B. Turner traveled throughout the Midwest, spreading the good news about Osage orange hedges, according to Lloyd Lewis, author of "John Wright, Prophet of the Prairies."

In 1874, barbed wire was invented, and Osage orange declined in popularity. A recent Yellow Pages survey of Pittsburgh area nurseries found no Osage orange trees. Many no longer even recognized this variety of tree. Even a call to the Burpee Seed Company came up empty.

One Pittsburgh nurseryman said the Osage orange is now considered a nuisance, especially in urban areas. The fruit is messy and the thorns are long, so most landscapers avoid it.

But Osage oranges do have their fans. A good source of information on the Internet is, a Web site devoted to the Osage orange tree, with links to other related sites, including nurseries that sell Osage orange seedlings for 50 cents to $1.50 each. But, according to the Pittsburgh GardenPlace, you can grow one of these interesting trees yourself, for free.

Osage orange trees can be propagated from root cuttings or summer branch cuttings, dipped in a rooting agent such as Rootone, and planted in sand, kept either under mist in a greenhouse, or in a cold frame in your own backyard.

Another possibility can be found on the hedge apple Web site. Jeff Goodwin, a Massachusetts high school biology teacher, planted Osage orange trees with his students. He let the fruit rot and picked out the seeds. Then, he put the seeds in the freezer for three months to simulate winter. He planted the seeds in his school's greenhouse, and most of the seeds grew.

So try your hand at growing Osage oranges. With luck, your children or grandchildren will one day discover one more use for monkey balls -- street bowling.

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