The bucket: A lesson on the Osage orange

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Osage orange bark
The trunks of the Osange orange trees are short and covered with deeply furrowed orange bark. (Tami Gingrich photo)

I usually don’t know what I am going to write about each week until I look around and see what is happening in real-time. In fact, it never even occurred to me to write an article on this subject until I spotted the bucket.

As I drive around backroads, I have learned to pay attention to items for sale on tables and in wheelbarrows at the end of driveways. I have gotten some great deals on homegrown produce this way.

I saw the bucket in the distance, and as I approached, I noticed the sign and the plastic container on the ground below with a slot for money and slowed down to have a look. What I saw intrigued me and made me shake my head.

The bucket was stuffed full of yellow-green, grapefruit-sized fruits with wrinkled skin resembling that of a brain. A price tag of “$.50 Apiece” was affixed to the side. This was the fruit of the Osage orange tree (Maclura pomifera).

Bucket of oranges
The bucket was stuffed full of yellow-green, grapefruit-sized fruits with a wrinkled skin resembling that of a brain. (Tami Gingrich photo)

The Osage orange is a small, deciduous tree, which, at maturity reaches 40-65 feet in height with a rounded canopy. The trunks are short and covered with deeply furrowed orange bark. Its golden-yellow wood is extremely close-grained, dense and flexible.

The Osage orange tree was named for the Osage Native American Tribe, whose members traveled hundreds of miles in search of the wood of this tree which they used to make their bows and other weapons. (Interestingly, a new movie that just came out in October 2023, Killers of the Flower Moon, is about this very Osage Nation).

Because the wood is rot-resistant, it is used for making fence posts. These posts must be placed in the ground while still green, as the staples used to attached the fencing wire will not penetrate the wood once it is dry. In fact, once dry, the wood is known to have the highest heating value of any commonly available wood in North America. In addition, the dense grain of this wood produces good tonal properties resulting in the production of high-quality waterfowl game calls and woodwind instruments.

The branches of the Osage orange are adorned with many thorns, and the American settlers learned how to utilize this tree as a hedge for controlling the movement of livestock.

When pruned heavily, the tree would sprout additional shoots which would become interwoven with the existing branches forming a dense, impenetrable barricade. This method of creating a barrier hedge was popular until the invention of barbed wire in 1874 began to take its place. The trees, when managed this way, were also incredibly effective windbreaks.

In Autumn, the leaves of the Osage orange turn a lemony yellow, and trees tend to hold their leaves a bit longer than other species. This makes them easy to spot. As I drove around the countryside this week, I was able to spot this tree easily and was surprised at just how many were flourishing in this area. Not only was I able to recognize entire wood edges along fields but because of their potential to invade habitats that are not managed, I noticed many individual trees in overgrown meadows as well.

Osage orange closeup
The fruits, which can grow up to 6” across, have a roughened, brain-like surface. (Tami Gingrich photo)

It is actually the large, round, distinctive balls that the tree begins to drop this time of year for which it is most recognized. Commonly referred to as hedge apples, monkey balls or mock oranges, the Osage orange is not related to any species in the citrus family but is actually a member of the mulberry.

The fruits, which can grow up to 6 inches across, have a roughened, brain-like surface. This is the result of multiple fruits that have grown together, having developed from each of the hundreds of individual flowers packed together in the large blossom.

An Osage orange is not poisonous but is not palatable either. Its large size and hard, dry texture result in the fruit being largely ignored, remaining where it lands inside of livestock pastures or when encountered by foraging wildlife. When cut open or damaged, an amazing amount of sticky, white, glue-like latex is secreted. The few seeds produced within may be sought out by squirrels as the fruit breaks down.

Cross section Osage orange
When cut open or damaged, an amazing amount of sticky, white, glue-like latex is secreted from the fruit of the Osage orange. (Tami Gingrich photo)

Here in the Midwest, the fruit of the Osage orange tree has yet another name, spider ball. It is truly believed that if they are placed inside the walls of a house, in basements or around doors that they will repel spiders from entering. Thus, this has become a common practice, the fruits highly sought after and even offered for sale when collected.

It is true that scientists have identified compounds within the balls that may repel insects, but they are much too low to be effective. Only when these chemicals are extracted and then concentrated do they exhibit any functional properties. There is absolutely no evidence that spiders are repelled by Osage oranges. In fact, there is little evidence that spiders are even able to detect smell!

I stopped to visit a tree overhanging the road where oodles of hedge apples lay crushed on the pavement and accumulating along the roadside. As I bent down to pick up the fruit used in these photos, I was taken aback by a large spider sitting happily atop, its web encompassing several of the nearby fruits. My mind went back to the bucket on the side of the road. Yes, spider ball indeed!

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A life-long resident of Geauga County in northeast Ohio, Tami Gingrich recently retired from a 31-year career as a Biologist/Field Naturalist with Geauga Park District. Tami has been a licensed bird bander for over 30 years. Her hobbies include photography, lepidoptera, gardening and spending time with her husband on their small farm in Middlefield, Ohio. She welcomes any questions or comments at Royalwalnutmoth@gmail.com and will gladly consider suggestions for future articles.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I enjoy your articles so much and share them on my social media. We should all learn something from each one.
    I would like to see an article about my favorite North American mammal/marsupial the Opossum. I think an article about the difference between turkey vultures and black vultures.
    Keep on educating us. It is enjoyable.

  2. Tami, great article, and very informative. Throughout the article I kept waiting for one specific item, and you did not disappoint – “…a large spider sitting happily atop…”. Thanks for both the education and a morning laugh!

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