This is the fallen fruit of the Osage-orange, a tree commonly found in old fence rows. When I see this fruit, I always think of Mammoths and Ground Sloths, two members of the megafauna that used to roam this area until their extinction nearly 10,000 years ago. These large herbivores were the last species to utilize the fruit as a food source and were the primary dispersal mechanism for the seeds.
Osage-orange produces an abundance of seed inside the fleshy fruits. The large herbivores would eat these fruits whole and pass most of the seeds undamaged through their digestive systems. The animals would then wander around dropping the seeds with their dung. In this way, the trees were spread across the landscape.
A few modern mammals are attracted by Osage-orange fruits, but it’s not really the fruit they are after. Most of these animals, such as squirrels, are seed predators that actually open and eat the seeds. Empty seed coats are all that remain of seeds that will have no chance of being dispersed.
The actual flesh of the fruit is left behind to decompose.
At the time of European colonization, Osage-orange was only found in the Red River Watershed region of eastern Texas. The trees found here today were introduced and are not considered native to this area. Since the tree was spread so easily by large prehistoric herbivores, I wonder if Osage-orange might have had a much broader range during the Pleistocene when the megafauna were so common and widespread. I haven’t read anything that suggests such an idea, but I think it’s a possibility. Osage-orange may have actually grown on this spot in the far distant past.
Osage-orange was commonly planted as a living fence. Its tight growth, along with the presence of some strong thorns, helped to keep livestock contained within the field.
Their habit of spreading limbs far out into the field, caused Osage-orange to be removed by many farmers who didn’t want to be raked from their tractor seat by the thorny branches. There are only a few of these trees growing at Blue Jay Barrens. Most show signs of having been cut at some time in the past, most likely for use as fence posts. Despite the fact that the seeds are viable and easily germinated, the trees are not spreading into the fields, so they don’t currently fall into the invasive category. For now, I’ll leave the trees alone and keep imagining that a herd of Mammoths has gathered around the tree to eat fruit.