Osage Orange

Maclura pomifera

Osage_Orange_Maclura_pomifera.jpg

Illustration of Osage orange flowers and fruit.
Osage orange, Maclura pomifera
Paul Nelson
Thorny
Skin irritating
Other Common Name
Hedge Apple; Hedgeapple; Bois d’Arc; Bow-Wood
Family

Moraceae (mulberries)

Description

Osage orange is a medium-sized tree with a short trunk, dense, round, or irregular crown, milky sap, and stout thorns.

Leaves are alternate, simple, 3–6 inches long, 2–3 inches wide, broadest below the middle; margins lacking teeth; upper surface dark green, shiny; lower surface paler, with some hairs along the veins.

Bark is brown to orange, deeply grooved with age, ridges rounded, interconnecting, often peeling into long, thin strips; exposed roots (and wood) bright orange.

Twigs are slender, green, turning light orange-brown, young twigs hairy, becoming smooth later; sap milky; spines stout, straight, about ½ inch long, emerging above the leaf attachment.

Flowers May–June. Male and female flowers minute, in dense clusters about 1 inch across, each produced on separate trees; no petals.

Fruits September–October, large, yellowish green, fleshy or pulpy, 4–5 inches across; surface resembling a brain; juice milky, sticky, bitter. Numerous seeds small, flattened, imbedded in the fruit.

Size

Height: to 50 feet.

osage_oranges.jpg

Photo of Osage orange fruits hanging in tree.
Osage Orange Fruits
Osage orange bears weird, softball-sized, chartreuse, brainlike fruits.

osage_orange.jpg

Image of an Osage orange leaf, fall leaf, and fruit.
Osage Orange
Osage orange summer leaf, fall leaf, and fruit.
Habitat and conservation

Occurs in low woods in valleys along streams, edge of woods, pastures, fencerows, thickets, and disturbed forests. Osage orange was introduced to Missouri long ago for use as hedgerows and windbreaks — hence the common name hedge apple. Biologists believe that the large fruits evolved to be eaten and dispersed by the large herbivores, such as mastodons, which lived on our continent only 20,000–30,000 years ago. Today, not many animals eat the sticky fruits, and the seeds often end up right where they fell.

image of Osage Orange distribution map
Distribution in Missouri

Introduced statewide; native to Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and portions of Missouri.

Status

Sometimes considered a nuisance, this species is native to portions of Missouri. A single female Osage orange tree can produce many fruits, each with many seeds. The animals that eat the fruits disperse the seeds over long distances. This tree can also reproduce from root sprouts.

Human connections

Also called bois d’arc and bow-wood, it was used by the Osage to make bows. The useful, heavy wood resists decay and is uniquely yellow-orange. A yellow dye can be made from the roots. Native Americans used root tea as an eye wash. Settlers planted rows of Osage orange as a living cattle fence.

Ecosystem connections

Squirrels tear apart the fruit to eat the seeds, and in open areas the tree provides invaluable cover to many small mammals and birds. It can become a nuisance in prairies and savannas, however, and also invades forest communities, especially after disturbances such as grazing.