Every fall, the ground is covered with the fruit of the Osage orange, those grapefruit-sized, bumpy green orbs that often rot, get run over by passing cars or get kicked and thrown like softballs by children.
They’re not actually oranges – they’re a member of the mulberry family – and they’re barely edible, like a pomegranate or an apple.
Even raccoons and squirrels don’t necessarily like to eat them.
Slice one open (it’s no easy task cutting through that thick rind), and the Osage orange reveals a milky sap that can cause contact dermatitis, according to Valerie Sesler, master gardener coordinator for the Penn State Cooperative Extension in Fayette County.
Osage oranges, also known as monkey balls and hedge apples, don’t seem to have much going for them.
But once, the Osage orange tree, native to the Red River region of Texas and Oklahoma, was plenty useful, according to Sesler. The Osage Indians traveled hundreds of miles to gather the wood, prized for making flexible, durable bows. The trees were found to be easily transplanted and they would grow in extreme conditions, so Great Plains settlers planted them as hedge rows to provide a barrier for livestock (the long thorns on each branch made the Osage orange tree the equivalent of a living barbed wire fence) and for wind breaks for houses in brutal winters. The tree’s wood also was used for making fence posts because it is slow to rot.
As for the fruit itself, says Dr. Cynthia Morton, associate curator and head of section at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, people and animals don’t eat it today, but some scientists believe that Osage oranges were a regular part of the diet of mammals who lived thousands of years ago, making it an ecological anachronism.
“They are edible, but you don’t want to eat them because they’re disgusting. But scientists speculate that back in the Pleistocene period, mammoths and mastodons ate the Osage oranges and dispersed the seeds as they roamed. They are a throwback,” said Morton.
People have long believed that Osage oranges repel spiders, crickets and other insects and place the balls in their home’s basement or near its foundation. But it probably doesn’t help much.
“University research has been conducted to find out if the belief that the fruit could be used as an insect repellent is valid. When concentrated, the compounds were found to repel insects, but the natural concentrations found in the fruit were too low to be effective as an insect repellent,” said Penn State extension’s Sesler.
While Osage oranges have gone the way of the typewriter in its usefulness, they have found some value: in floral arrangements.
Martha Steart touts their value for craft projects and uses both the fruit and the gnarled branches of the Osage orange tree in an autunmal arrangement.
“I’ve always admired their large, brain-like look. A florist friend of mine said she likes to use them in floral displays,” said Morton. “After hearing her say that, I started thinking about the Art in Bloom fund raiser we do to benefit the Carnegie Museum of Art where designers create floral arrangements based on artwork. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be cool to use Osage oranges in them.’”