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