This time of year, anywhere there are hedge apple trees, also known as Osage Orange trees you will find piles of greenish-yellow hedge apple husks, deposited by squirrels chewing them apart to get to the many succulent seeds inside.
In the 1880s before the invention of barbed wire, ranchers began planting Osage Orange trees as living livestock fences. The trees get their name from the Osage Indian tribe that lived near the trees native range in the Red River valley of southern Oklahoma and northern Texas, and from the citrus aroma emitted by the fruit. Osage Orange seedlings planted thickly together in rows and aggressively pruned soon grew into living fences that were “Horse high, bull strong and hog tight;” tall enough a horse couldn’t jump it, stout enough a bull couldn’t push through it and so dense a hog couldn’t penetrate it. Osage Orange trees have been planted in greater numbers than any other single tree species in North America.
The largest known living Osage Orange tree grows on River Farms in Alexandria, Virginia. The beast stands 54 feet tall and its branches span 90 feet. As firewood, dried hedge wood produces more BTU’s than any other wood. As fence posts, hedge wood provides more rot resistance without chemicals than any other wood. Osage Orange wood is also prized for making archery bows. One of the names given hedge wood by early explorers was bow wood, probably because they observed Osage Indians making bows from it. Although I could not confirm it, I found several references online to a guy in Americus KS. who makes harps from Osage Orange wood because “he believes it to be the most dimensionally stable of all woods when aged and placed under strain.”
However after all the praises are sung about the fine qualities of its wood, Osage Orange trees are best known for the annoying and seemingly useless fruit produced by the female trees. About the size of softballs and clothed in a thick, bright green, knobby husk (when first ripe) hedge apples are known by several other names: horse apples, hedge balls, monkey balls, green brains and mock oranges are the ones I know. As I noted above, squirrels love them for the seeds inside them, which by the way are NOT noxious to humans like I’ve always heard, but are said to be barely palatable, plus chemicals in the flesh can cause severe stomach irritation. Livestock can also eat them, but their sticky flesh is very dangerous for ruminants as it does not move well through their complicated digestive systems and easily becomes lodged, causing bloating and possible death. I confirmed that with our veterinarian Dr. Mark Handlin.
Many people swear by hedge apples for insect control, and say placing the ripe fruit under sinks, in closets etc. repels spiders, crickets and other pesky bugs, while naysayers believe the only way a hedge apple will kill or repel a spider is to drop it on the spider. One lady claims stuffing pieces of hedge apples down mole holes rids her yard of moles, and says it has worked for her neighbors too.
The most talked about and controversial use for hedge apples involves their alleged medicinal value. Studies have shown that hedge apple flesh does contain minor anti-inflammatory and anti-fungal properties, but those properties are in very minute quantities. Other than that, no official studies have confirmed any positive medicinal values of hedge apples. However, many people continue to believe that hedge apples offer curative and healing value. The internet contains much information and many testimonials of hedge apples curing cancer. Many people dry them and process their flesh to make pills and tinctures to fight colds and to boost the immune system. Some people freeze the whole fruits then grate off a tablespoon of the outer husk to take with honey when they feel a cold coming on. Even though the sticky inner flesh of the hedge balls is said to irritate human skin, Iowa chemist and entrepreneur Todd Johnson’s company, Osage Healthcare buys hedgeapples and extracts their oil for use in making hair and skincare products. Another Iowa company called Moses Hedge Balls sells hedge balls, Osage Orange wood and product made from hedge apples called Hales Bug Repel. You can buy a dozen hedge apples from Moses for about $30. (talk about a markup!)
My mom used to slice hedge apples into ¼ inch slices then dry them slowly in the oven to make decorations strongly resembling sunflower blooms. We used to throw them at each other when we were kids and I learned to be quick on my feet cause’ those things hurt! If I had to choose between mom’s green willow switch to my bare legs or a hedge apple to the head, I might just opt for the green willow switch! For some reason Iowa seems to be a hotbed for hedge apple related research, companies and products, and after last week’s Iowa caucus circus, maybe Iowans should stick to hedge apples. One thing I do know; I’ll make you a better deal on a dozen hedge balls than Moses will.... Continue to Explore Kansas Outdoors.
Steve Gilliland, Inmanm, can be contacted by email at [email protected]