Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I seem to have a reputation for killing anything that’s not native. I do spend a lot of time removing those exotic species that have a negative impact on the native ecosystem, but I don’t destroy everything just because this wasn’t its original home. The tree that bore this fruit is the Osage-orange, Maclura pomifera, a good example of a non-native species that I appreciate.

While these fruits are produced in profusion, there’s only a slim chance of the seeds or root sprouts producing any new trees. Because of this, there is little concern of this tree suddenly taking over the countryside.

Few animals seem inclined to struggle through the outer fruit to get at the seeds. Squirrels will occasionally take the time to open these things up. Of course, squirrels seem to enjoy ripping things apart for only a tiny reward. I’m just surprised they didn’t bother to drag it into my yard for dismantling like they do so many other things.

If you find one of these trees, it’s most likely that the tree was planted in that spot. This is a tree that ties to our old farm heritage and was planted because it had value to the farmer. This tree is sometimes called the Hedge Apple and used to be a primary component of the farm hedge row. Osage-orange trees were planted closely spaced in single rows as a field division. Once they grew together, they made an effective livestock barrier.

These thorns are one of the reasons the trees could hold livestock. The thorny branches were a type of natural barb wire.

Wood of the Osage-orange is very rot resistant and was used extensively for fence posts. After being cut, the stump would sprout and produce more posts. The stumps show that this tree was cut pretty high on the trunk. There is a little surface decomposition on the stumps, but the wood is still hard and strong and is impeding the growth of the sprouts. There are a couple of old Osage-orange corner posts at Blue Jay Barrens that may have come from this tree.

Farmers trying to maintain a steady growth of good fence posts would thin the clump of sprouts to encourage tall straight growth. You’re not going to get any good posts out of a tangled mess like this.

If the trunk isn’t straight, you can’t really expect the upper branches to be much better. This tangle reminds me of Medusa’s hair.

This is the type of tree that makes a good post. Annual harvest of new posts to be used in fence repair was a standard practice on farms in the early 1900’s.

Osage-orange has a rather handsome bark. It displays a nice orange color down at the bottom of the fissures.


  1. Very interesting.... I didn't know Osage-orange was not native. Where we used to live there was a windbreak in our backyard (the back border). It had Oak, Sassafras and Osage Orange. Now I know why... I had heard they were called Hedge Apples, but I didn't know they were put there by the farmers! Where is it native to?

  2. Kelly - It's native to the south-western United States, mainly Texas. It has been spread through most of the eastern states.

  3. I would definitely keep a watchful eye to make sure that tree stays non-invasive. I live in the Central Bluegrass of Kentucky, and those trees are growing EVERYWHERE! My family farm has them sprouting up by the thousands...

  4. Mason - Thanks for the warning. So far I haven't found any here that are not stump sprouts. If they do start to spread I'll definitely take action against them.

  5. The fruits look very interesting - I've never ever seen nor even heard about this tree before and that's one of the reasons I love reading your blog - there's always some new bit of knowledge in each of your posts!

  6. It's been hypothesized that osage orange was more widespread during the Pleistocene. Paul Martin believes they were a food of the mastodon which spread the seeds in their feces. And in fact osage orange was found in mastodon feces at a fossil site in the Aucilla River, Florida. Osage orange did not occur in Florida again until transplanted by man.

    Honey locust, wild squash, and paw paw are other examples of trees that were more widespread during the Pleistocene because they traveled through megafauna alimentary systems.

    Honey locust thorns are an anachronism. They're robust as far as a mastodon or giant ground sloth could reach. Above that height, notice that the thorns are much smaller.

  7. I've read the same thing, Mark. It certainly sounds logical.

    I've noticed some Honey Locust with very few thorns. Maybe this means that there is no longer a process of selection for those with the largest array of thorns.