The Osage-Orange

It was a thing of real interest when Meriwether Lewis sent osage-orange tree (Maclura pomifera) cuttings and seeds back from St. Louis to President Thomas Jefferson in 1804 and in 1806. According to a letter from Lewis, the trees did not take, but since then it has been planted throughout America and can be found just about everywhere.

I am thankful for the two female trees that drop fruit nearby my home.  It’s the time of year that I gather them, for, like many Virginians, I use the fruit for Christmas decorations. Colonial Williamsburg often uses them instead of apples, impaling them on nails on cone-shaped wooden forms, then using boxwood and holly to fill the spaces between each fruit or they are used on wreaths and swags along with other natural items like nuts, berries, cones and fruit.  I always have a bowl of osage-oranges mixed with nuts, berries, cones and pine on the dining room table at Christmas.  It’s a festive look and the fruit can release a delightful citrus aroma.

Called osage-oranges by most folks, the fruit is also called hedge apples, horse apples, or monkey’s brain. It is a bright green wrinkled ball about the size of a grapefruit, a relative of mulberry and fig trees.  The Osage Indians prized the wood of the tree for bows and war clubs and early settlers prized it as a living fence for livestock.  Until barbed wire, thousands of miles of this thorny pruned hedge kept farm animals in place on The Great Plains.

It is native to a small area of Texas and Oklahoma, but the absolute largest osage-orange tree, the National Champion and American Forestry Hall of Fame osage-orange tree does not grow there.  It grows right here in Virginia at Red Hill, the home of Patrick Henry.  It has an eighty-five foot span and is sixty feet high.  No one knows the exact age of this remarkable tree.  We know it postdates Henry as he died in 1799 before Lewis and Clark sent the first seeds to Virginia.  A wonderful legend has it that a tree was given by Lewis and Clark to his daughters after his death and they immediately planted it in front of Red Hill.  I like that…

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

11 thoughts on “The Osage-Orange

  1. Osage orange…. Ah, the memories of childhood — My grandmother had a tree at her house. I still remember that faint, sweet smell and the roughness of the skin as it were only yesterday! Thanks for the memory….

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  2. The one on the grounds of the AHS must surely compete or even surpass the giant mentioned in the article, it is absolutely enormous. Rumour has it George Washington had it planted. :o)

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    • Hi Dave, I’m sure you’re speaking of the huge osage-orange at the American Horticulture Society’s River Farm near Mount Vernon. I have not seen that tree but would love to know if it has usurped Red Hill’s osage-orange. It must be about the same age.

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    • David, I love the tree, too. A huge one near us split after Hurricane Isabel. My woodworker husband salvaged the wood for projects. It is such a dense wood that it ruined a few saws!

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      • One on the grounds of VCCA fell as well and they use it for firewood. It lasts a good long time in the fireplace.

        I don’t think I’ve (knowingly) seen it as a finished wood. I’m curious about the grain.

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      • He showed me the wood before he actually made anything. It was almost yellow inside. He said the grain was so tight, as hard as metal, and he could have made a hammer out of it. But one of the things he made was a lovely a butcher block for me and it is very solid. The wood darkened over time but it is still beautiful. If he has any wood left, I’ll ask him to throw a log on the fire on Christmas Day and let it do its thing all day.

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