Just when we thought that this season, especially the politics, couldn’t get any wackier, it’s plants that are making the news here on Election Day. Yes, Virginia, oranges ARE apples — if it’s Osage oranges that you’re talking about. You see, Maclura pomifera is known by a whole range of names, including horse apple, bow-wood, yellow-wood, mock orange, Osage orange and hedge apple. AND an Osage orange is a whole lot more like a mulberry than either of those other fruits.
Osage orange’s pre-Columbian range was very narrow — basically parts of Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Why such a narrow range? Some have hypothesized that it was dispersed by the giant sloth, which was extirpated shortly after the first human settlements on the continent. Osage orange is dioecious, which means that male and female flowers grow on different trees. Only those with female flowers produce the fruits.
Plant common names often tell as much about people as about plants, and this tree is a great example. Its wood was used by Native Americans for making bows (bow-wood). A yellow dye can be extracted from the wood (yellow-wood). It was one of the main trees used during the Great Depression to provide windbreaks in the prairies of the Midwest, and before the invention of barbed wire, these thorny trees were planted in rows to contain livestock, leading to the hedge apple name. The name Osage orange? That’s from its association with the Osage Nation of the Midwest.
Meriwether Lewis gave a cutting to Thomas Jefferson, who is responsible for the largest specimen in North America, located in Alexandria, Virginia. Today the tree has naturalized all over the continent.The wood is strong, resistant to rot and insects, and easily worked. But don’t burn it — they say sparks will fly! Hey, maybe an Osage orange bonfire would be just the thing to celebrate the end of Election 2016.