Why Osage-Orange Trees? Why Here? Why Now?

December 15, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed
Maclura pomifera, an excellent hedging tree

In Which Some Planting Gets Done, with Hope 

Part of an ongoing series about the post-modern hedgerow and its uses in the landscape. 

Under a gray October sky, with a stiff prairie breeze coming from the south and west, six people were planting little saplings along the line that divides our Quaker-owned property from an expansive field to the west. A farming friend, also a Quaker, who lives down the road and helps care for the property, walked over, smiling under his baseball cap. What are you putting in?” he asked. “Osage-oranges,” I said, “we’re making a hedgerow.” His face rearranged itself slightly. “Oh. What are you doing that for? What will I say to my neighbors? Do you know the heat I’ll catch if it gets out we’re growing Osage-oranges? Everybody around here hates them. We’ve spent so much time getting rid of those things. They’re messy. The hedge apples are bad for the machinery.” 

My friend is in his seventies and has lived in Putnam County, Illinois his entire life. He’s seen a thing or two. He remembers when farms used to be small mixed farms with long crop rotations, livestock, chickens and vegetable gardens. He remembers when Osage-orange hedges were actually used as livestock barriers, “and we’d have to go out every year and cut them with machetes. What a lot of work. I can’t believe you’re doing this.” He considers the remnant, neglected hedgerows elsewhere on the property, the Osage-oranges grown into trees interspersed with black walnuts, brambles, gooseberries, grasses, violets and a mixture of other native and non-native wildings, to be messy—though admittedly good for birds. He remembers farmers, including himself, getting rid of most hedgerows in the county, later planting multiflora roses at the government’s recommendation, and subsequent struggles with that: multiflora rose has become such a nuisance that it’s now illegal in Illinois and most other states. “I’d probably get arrested—I’ve still got it on my property, though I keep mowing,” he said. Besides growing corn and soy, he keeps bees, maintains a bee meadow planted to a mix of native flowers and white clover, and looks after a “timber,” a remnant woodland full of native forbs and grasses that slopes down to a creek—person and property in marked contrast to much of the farming done around there. But still, he was wondering: why on earth would we ever plant Osage-oranges now? And what will he tell the neighbors, especially the farmer next door to our property, once the trees are big enough to be identifiable? 

A backyard nursery 

In the fall of 2013, I had asked an acquaintance to bring me some hedge apples, Osage-orange fruits, from the Quaker campus at McNabb, Putnam County, Illinois. My idea was that I would propagate them in my backyard so that we could create a wildlife friendly, post-modern hedgerow on the west side of campus where our land abuts land planted to soy or corn in alternate years. The trees would be the backbone, the spaces filled in with other small native trees, shrubs, and possibly forbs and grasses. 

I described the hedge apples: fluorescent green, softball-sized spheres, the color appealing, even stylish. The skin is deeply wrinkled, like an orange with character, or a small brain. There is a distinct orange-y, citrusy odor. Armed with this description, she collected about ten, brought them to me, and I arranged them in a misshapen pyramid under the pagoda dogwood in my backyard, between the native ginger and the Iris reticulata. I did this on the advice of 19th century sources that said that letting the hedge apples age over the winter would make it much easier to remove the seeds and plant them come spring. There they sat, through the mild autumn—during which a few squirrels tried them out and decided they weren’t so attractive—and, covered with snow, through the first polar vortex winter. 

Besides their distinctive green color, recently dropped hedge apples are very firm; inside is a sticky, milky sap with seeds lodged firmly within. You could play a game of catch with one, or set a few in the basement to help repel insects, but for planting, it really is best to let them age. In the spring, what had been firm green balls were now misshapen brown blobs. The skin had lost its integrity and had softened like wet cardboard. The sticky white interior matrix had become a reddish, slimy gel. It was planting time.

Image Removed
Aged hedge apples in my backyard

As far as I know, hardly anyone grows Osage-orange trees on purpose any more, though during the 1980’s garden writer Jeff Ball touted them as perfect for the suburban hedgerows he championed. Farmers in prior times would closely plant mail-order whips or plow a very shallow (an inch or less) furrow and plant with a slurry of mashed, aged hedge apples. With regular trimming, the resultant thick growth would become a stout, thorny hedge. (The seeds need warmth, light and contact with mineral soil to sprout. Plant them too deeply and they’ll refuse to appear.) Since my backyard is small, and I’d be transporting the trees out to McNabb, I cut up the fruits, smooshed out the seeds with my fingers, washed them off in a colander, and planted them in containers. In the interest of experimentation, I planted some outdoors in an old window box planter and a couple of other containers and some in flats in the greenhouse at my school. A couple of weeks later they had all germinated, coddled or not. When they had a few true leaves, I transplanted them into some old 4-inch pots I had sitting around and when I ran out of those, simply left the ones in the window box alone. 

Image Removed

Image Removed

That June I brought the greenhouse-grown ones home to sit with the others and then basically ignored them, other than occasional water, for the rest of the summer. They thrived. I’d hoped to be able to plant them at McNabb in the fall, but various life events intervened and there I was, with fifty babies to get through the winter. Luckily, they were still in their small pots, so after harvesting the tomatoes and basil from my semi-raised bed, I buried the pots in the dirt and then spread a 6-8-inch thick blanket of straw over the whole, so that only the little saplings were visible. A second polar vortex winter ensued. Would they make it? 

A tale of prehistoric relics 

The Osage-orange, Maclura pomifera, is an ancient tree, a prehistoric survivor. Though related to the mulberry, it is alone in its genus, and is native to the North American continent, where it thrives in zones 5-9—across the Great Plains and up to Ontario. Officially, it is only native to the Red River region of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, which is where it was growing at the time of European settlement.

Thus, it has not conventionally been considered native here in Illinois, or even in Missouri, where it grows freely in the woods. With its dense wood, thorns, shiny leaves, “messy” growth habit and large fruit, it is unique in appearance and irredeemably wild in nature.

The tree is fairly small, rarely reaching more than 50 feet when allowed to grow without cutting back. In full sunlight, with plenty of space between, it develops multiple stems. It is dioecious–that is there are male and female trees; the female produces the distinctive fruit. It is thorny in the extreme and has the ability to sucker freely after coppicing. Pruning, trimming and coppicing only increase its tangled, thicketing behavior. The wood is hard, dense and rot resistant—and resilient enough that Native Americans valued it for making bows; a lively trade in “Bois d’Arc” (“bow wood”), as the French called it, or “bodark,” as my mother, originally from Texas, calls it, carried on across the continent. 

Image Removed
Ad in the Ohio Cultivator, 1858

Nineteenth-century farmers prized the wood because it is so good for making tool handles and fence posts. And, valuable on the treeless prairie during long cold winters prior to easy access to fossil fuels, the wood burns hot and long, almost like charcoal, even requiring a coal grate. The ability to grow it and keep it trimmed in hedges that were “horse high, bull strong, and hog tight,” was an advantage in the years prior to the invention of barbed wire in 1875. No wonder Osage-orange champions Jonathan Baldwin Turner and Dr. John Kennicott, both of Illinois, were able to promote it with such ease. Turner researched and grew several species of hedging plants and touted Osage-orange as the best. Kennicott claimed that Osage-orange trees offered more economic benefits to farmers than any other crop. These men were not thinking about whether or not the tree was native or the effect it would have on ecosystems; they wanted to help farmers settle and thrive on the fertile prairies. You could say they considered Osage-orange trees to be part of the tool kit of civilization building, of Manifest Destiny, though I’m not sure either ever wrote or spoke in quite such grandiose terms. 

Questions in the Midwest 

Now, a person inclined to think speculatively or ecologically about plant forms might look at an Osage-orange and start wondering. For example: why does this tree respond so well to coppicing, growing only denser and thornier? Why is it so thorny in the first place? Why is its historic range so restricted and the fruits so heavy and large that they’re not be easily carried far from the mother tree the way acorns and other nuts are by squirrels? Strangely, for years, few people asked these questions. The tree went from being desirable to undesirable as cultures and agricultural practices changed. In the 20th century some of those questions did begin to be asked, but actually planting Osage-oranges, on purpose, outside of the historic range, was frowned upon, not only by farmers in the grip of the industrial farming enchantment, but also by people concerned with the ecological preservation and restoration of historic wild or natural landscapes using native plants. 

These questions are easily turned around: In what sort of ecosystem, including animals, might such a tree evolve so that it could thrive and, in fact, expand its range? What would the pressures be, and what the opportunities? Trees that, when young, are grazed—or subjected to fire—often adapt to re-sprout vigorously. Trees that want to survive grazing also often develop thorns. Because they are driven to reproduce and increase their land holdings, as it were, trees produce tasty, seductive fruit and seeds, which might be light enough to travel by wind, as in the case of maple “whirligigs,” or may need hungry animals to help with dispersal. The fundamental question becomes, in what kind of landscape would the tree do well and what kinds of animals would eat hedge apples such that the seeds would travel and germinate elsewhere? 

In the case of our tree, its re-sprouting ability does mean it’s well adapted to large reaches of the American continent, where for thousands of years both herds of grazers and wildfires roamed the plains. But the seriously sizable thorns? The big heavy fruits? The tree seems evolved to simultaneously repel and attract some really, really big herbivores. Yet our historic landscape has always lacked any native herbivores of the size that would think large thorns only somewhat of an impediment, or find the fruits just right for snacking. 

Answers from Costa Rica 

Some answers first came from Costa Rica, where, in the 1980’s, ecologists Dan Janzen and Paul Martin, faced with some detective work involving a similar “ecological anachronism,” (a plant or animal having characteristics that don’t make sense for the place where it is found), a tree called Cassia grandis, whose foot long pods no native animals would eat, but introduced horses would. They hypothesized that prior to about 13,000 years ago, when elephant-like gomphotheres, giant ground sloths (400 pounds to 3 tons) and other species of megafauna roamed the Americas, Cassia grandis would have had a wider range, the fruits being dispersed by these animals. Then, roughly 13,000 years ago, the glaciers retreated, and climate warming ensued, driving some species to extinction. The Clovis people, ancestors of today’s Native Americans, colonized the Americas, bringing their sharp spears and hunting skills to places where such large animals had never encountered such small, dangerous predators. The megafauna lost out. Gone the gomphotheres, the 5-ton mastodons, the 6-ton wooly mammoths and 9-ton Columbian mammoths, gone the giant ground sloths, native horses and camels. 

Image Removed
9-ton Columbian mammoths once roamed North America

Could something similar to what happened to Cassia grandis have happened to the Osage-orange? It appears likely. To a 9-ton Columbian mammoth or 5-ton mastodon, hedge apples might seem the size a chocolate truffle is to us. As they browsed, roamed, ate the fruits and pooped out the seeds, the co-evolved tree maintained and possibly expanded its range. But later, absent its natural dispersers, our tree became an ecological anachronism and its range shrank—it might even have become extinct, had not the tribes in that area discovered the wood’s usefulness and started trading it, to their material advantage. Today, (re-introduced) horses pastured where Osage-oranges are present will eat hedge apples and poop out the seeds; anecdotally, trees sprout where they’ve done this. Squirrels—as I discovered this fall when they demolished a new pile of hedge apples in my backyard—also can learn to eat them, but since they shred the skin and eat the seeds, they’re not dispersers. From the field of paleoecology, with its analysis of fossilized pollen, comes the news that Osage-orange was indeed once dispersed throughout North America up to Ontario; in fact there were once seven separate species of Maclura. That range, of course, is about the same as where the tree is found now, thanks to modern humans, the new disperser. Thus, in planting our hedgerow, you could say we were planting a native species after all. 

Why an Osage-orange hedgerow now?

Image Removed

All the saplings did indeed survive the winter. When the weather warmed up and they leafed out, I potted them on in some old one and two gallon pots. They sat in my backyard all summer; we had decided that it would be best to plant them in early fall, counting on fall rains to help them acclimate. Finally, we set a planting date, took them out to McNabb and started in to work. 

As we planted the saplings, added plastic tree guards to protect them from over-enthusiastic mowers, and finally watered them in, we kept answering our friend’s questions. Yes, we were, as he observed, planting the trees too far apart to make a true hedgerow, and we weren’t planning to trim them down the first couple of years. We were going to let them grow into whatever their natural forms would be. Why was that? Because, I explained, we are making a post-modern hedgerow. I’d noticed that the Osage-oranges in our property’s remnant, naturalized hedgerows seemed to withstand herbicide drift from the neighboring fields, and we wanted some of that benefit here. The discussion went on, different members of the group chiming in. We are planning to infill with other wild native species of small trees and shrubs. We think that the Osage-oranges will help provide an environment where other species can take hold. Plants do that, the right plants in the right place helping create, or recreate a bio-diverse ecosystem that welcomes other, compatible plants; they all work together to create soil health through the process of photosynthesis. We don’t yet know exactly how wide our multi-species hedgerow will be. Besides serving as a form of windbreak against the strong prevailing west winds, it will serve as a shelterbelt for local birds and wildlife.

We talked some more about beneficial insects, birds and other animals. 

Our friend, who remembers an abundance of wildlife populating the area when he was young, started smiling again when he heard “shelterbelt.” He thought this would be a better word to use in the inevitable conversations. And maybe helping birds could be worked in. Everyone likes birds, and many of his neighbors have noticed how once common species such as red-headed woodpeckers are no longer so evident. 

Planting into the future 

Image Removed

In creating this shelterbelt, this post-modern hedgerow, I like to think my friends and I are doing a form of restoration that Aldo Leopold might recognize, similar to the work he did with farmers in Wisconsin. The project does not seek to remove people or pretend that this piece of ground can be returned to a “state of nature” or to its “pre-settlement” condition. In his book “Once and Future Planet,” Irish journalist Paddy Woodworth writes about many of the thorny questions involved in restoration projects. In some cases, he says, restoration is not about attempting to “rewild,” to remove human impact. Some ancient worked landscapes, in Italy, for example, have resulted over time in increased biodiversity. And in Ireland, farmers are helping restore native woods to land where they’d gone missing in favor of monocultural tree plantations. On our property, islanded by a sea of industrial farming, we cannot return the field to the timber and prairie that once cloaked the soil; we cannot return it to a point in its historic trajectory where it could continue on a path it might have followed had it been farmed less, with less toxic methods, and more of it left wild. We can, though, restore part of a historical, remembered landscape, restoring, perhaps, an aspect that only the land might “remember” but is outside of human recorded history. By renewing a physical aspect of the landscape in danger of being lost or forgotten, we are re-affirming the history, but also, in our use of these ancient trees, reaching beyond our human history to help pull deeper time into the present—as those 19th century farmers were doing all unbeknownst to them. And we are, by beginning to reintroduce native biodiversity, pushing small levers in the currently established system. One could say we are performing an act of manumission in a place where the land has been enslaved—turned into property and used exclusively for our purposes—which, after 180 years of farming, has brought on serious natural and cultural imbalance and loss. 

Environmentally, our actions will add to our property’s overall land health. Culturally, they are also part of a larger story that writer and plant ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about when discussing the Anishinaabe prophecy of the seven fires. Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. As she recounts the prophecy, in this time of the seventh fire we can choose the charred, dead path of continued environmental destruction or the living path that helps the earth. Those walking the living green path into the future, must, as part of their task during their journey, go back and pick up things left along the way—stories, life ways, methods, memories—in order to carry them forward so they can help constitute a generative future. When I saw her speak in spring of 2014, she was very clear that she thinks this prophecy is talking not only about and for Native Americans, but that we all, especially those deeply connected to the land, together must tread this path as allies. 

In a memoir about his own journey into deep land awareness, British blogger and woodsman Jason Heppenstall quotes Gandhi as saying, “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” For me, the simple, mundane task of propagating that ancient species, of planting the young trees by hand, in their historic, and possibly prehistoric place, was deeply symbolic. My friends and I are re-creating but also newly creating: perhaps helping awaken something in the land, perhaps connecting to the ancient spirit of place that is always present, no matter how some humans try to kill it. We said no prayers aloud, held no ceremonies. The collective actions of growing, planting, watering and pledging to look after them seemed ceremony enough. In a few years the trees will be taller than a tall person. A few years after that they’ll become sexually mature and the females will begin to produce fruit. The hawthorns, currants, hazelnuts and other shrubs we plant with them in coming seasons will grow to fully express their shrubby natures. Birds and other creatures will take residence. Below ground, the soil biome will grow healthier and more complex and will begin to store more carbon. Our friend will stop by to check how the trees are doing and will explain to his neighbors about the new shelterbelt. In so doing, he might, just perhaps, initiate a slight cultural shift toward a new land consciousness. You never know. 

Image Removed

Thus begins the story of the first Osage-orange hedgerow, aka shelterbelt, planted in Putnam County, Illinois in sixty or more years. 

A Few Resources: 


  • "Aldo Leopold on Agriculture," by Robert E. Sayer, who serves on the Advisory Board, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture
  • "Living on the (H)edge," by horticulturalist Dave Coulter
  • "The Path to Odin’s Lake," Jason Heppenstall
  • Thanks to Google Books it is possible to read 19th century magazines such as the Ohio Cultivator and the Prairie Farmer, to which both Kennicott and Turner contributed, and which offer insights into 19th-century farming life


Adiran Ayres Fisher

Adrian Ayres Fisher

Adrian Ayres Fisher serves as a volunteer steward of a small forest preserve on the banks of the Des Plaines River in Illinois. As programs co-chair of West Cook Wild Ones, she educates about and promotes native-plant gardening and biodiversity. She writes and speaks on a range of nature-related topics from a Midwestern point of view. Her home is in an inner-ring suburb of Chicago and she blogs at Ecological Gardening.

Tags: biodiversity