Thanksgiving is about a week away, and along with thinking about all the food, my thoughts often turn to how I’m going to decorate the table. One of my favorite choices for table décor is the hedge apple (Maclura pomifera), also known as osage orange or horse apple. We have a large crystal bowl that we love to fill with these green curiosities. They make the perfect fall decoration and are readily available along our roadsides at this time of year.
Part of the fascination I have today with this odd looking fruit is its survival plan. All the other large, fleshy fruits native to North America have an animal partner that dines on them and assists in their seed dispersal. Unfortunately for the hedge apple, it’s believed that the animal in question was a type of sloth that died out before humans inhabited North America. M. pomifera and the sloth lived together happily in what is known as the Red River drainage of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.
You would think that a plant that lost its means of seed dispersal would have died out long ago, and yet, the hedge apple has been planted in every state in North America and spread even up into Canada. How is that possible? I think the plant got creative and simply found a new partner.
Humans have told all manner of stories about the fruit of M. pomifera. Folklore says that placing it in your house it will drive away spiders and crickets. They were definitely a fixture of my childhood, and I remember that a fresh batch of hedge apples were placed in the corners of the basement each fall. While it has never been proven effective against spiders or crickets, it appears that the hedge-apple sap repels cockroaches.
Hedge apples are also edible, though you won’t see them mentioned often in foraging cookbooks. The seeds are fairly difficult to extract because they are trapped inside the hard outer coating, embedded in woody flesh and encapsulated in a slimy pocket. I haven’t ever heard anyone describe the taste as “worth it,” so, we can’t attribute the survival of this plant to its ability to lure the human palate. Hedge apples are delicious snacks for horses and squirrels, too, but again, they aren’t truly set up to spread the seeds.
The reason why the tree has been spread all across North America is less about the fruit and more about the wood.
Horse High, Bull Strong and Hog Tight
While the fruit induced human curiosity about the tree, it was the wood that held our attention. The bendable limbs were a favorite of the Native Americans who used them for bows, and settlers used the wood to pen in their animals. It wasn’t until 1880 that barbed wire came along, so before then, ranchers needed a way to keep their animals from wandering away. Slips of M. pomifera planted closely together and kept trimmed form a living hedge that is nearly escape-proof. (I say “nearly” because I still haven’t met a goat that I would trust with an edible fence. I’d love to hear from folks who’ve tried it.)
When the mammoths and sloths died out, the hedge apple tree could have gone with them. Luckily for them, the fruit that used to attract a predator was interesting enough to enchant the human who had need for shelter and fencing. As I pile up a bowl of hedge apples for my Thanksgiving centerpiece, it makes me chuckle that this “useless” fruit is still working its wiles with the likes of me.