Poison isn’t the only way plants can kill you.
Take the legendary osage orange, aka hedge apple (Maclura pomifera). Orange, apple and pomifera make it sound all fruity doesn’t it? But the 5-inch diameter chartreuse fruit easily weighs a pound, and you don’t want to get beaned by one. Or you don’t want one to fall on your car. Or run over one with your bike.
Used by Native Americans, osage orange’s native range is Oklahoma and Texas, but the species has spread throughout much of the Midwest and New England due to cultivation. The wood of this 50-foot tall tree is prized by archers for arrows – one of its common names is bow wood. Rot resistant, it was used to make wheel rims and mining supports. Like hollies, a male and female plant is needed for fruit production. The fruits are dropping from trees now.
Osage orange “was early introduced into Indiana for use as a fence in the prairie areas,” the state’s first forester Charles C. Deam wrote in 1909 in Trees of Indiana. He found the tree scattered throughout the state, but primarily in southern and central Indiana. The name hedge apple comes from its use as a hedge, in part to define property lines. Inch-long spines along the branches reduced human and animal interference.
Folklore ascribes spider-fighting powers to these chartreuse fruits, prompting some people to put them in their garage or attic to ward off eight- and six-legged critters. The seeds are the only parts edible for humans, but they are mess to get to, fingers in slime and all that. Squirrels, deer, cattle and horses are fond of the fruits.
Although we think of osage orange trees as rural or roadside species, they do show up in urban areas. For instance, there’s one along the edge of a parking lot at the Chase Legacy Building on Indianapolis’ east side, near Tech High School. Remember that part about not wanting an osage orange to hit the car? Of course, I moved mine.
You can sometimes find osage orange fruits at farmers markets or roadside stands. There are a few online sources that sell the tree: coldstreamfarm.net in Michigan and naturehillsnursery.com in Nebraska. The latter says the tree is out of stock.
Or, you might be able to gather one in the wild and plant it to see what happens.
This column ran originally here Oct. 28, 2017.