They look like green brains, lying in clusters along roadsides, from September through December. They are the joy of many squirrels and the bane of every homeowner trying to mow in the fall. The trees and fruit have many names including:
Monkey Ball (or as my 6 year old says, Monkey Nuts)
The tree’s official name is Osage Orange, (in Latin, Maclura pomifera), a member of the mulberry family named for American geologist William Maclure. Osage Orange fruit, which has a fruity, citric fragrance, is inedible to humans (says most people), however squirrels seem to love it. Besides the distinctive fruit and orange-yellow wood, Osage Orange trees measure from 10 to 50 feet tall and have a trunk 1 to 2 feet in diameter. The branches form an even, round crown, unless the trees are growing closely together in a hedge and don’t have room to spread naturally. Between May and July, the species sports tiny greenish flowers. Other distinguishing characteristics of the Osage Orange include deeply furrowed, braided looking dark orange bark; long (3- to 5-inch) shiny egg-shaped dark green leaves which are pointed at one end; and many sharp, steel-strong thorns that make this tree a formidable barrier, to say the least. The male trees produce the pollen, and the female trees produce the fruit. They do not start bearing fruit for 10 years, so when planting seedlings it can be hard to tell what you will end up with unless the starts are from cuttings.
There is one person who contradicts the non-edible claim. A man named Jim Maison claims that the seeds are edible and are what the squirrels are so excited to access. Maison says that to separate the edible seeds from mature fruit, put the fruit in a bucket of water and wait until the fruit is soft, then separate the seeds out of the slimy husks. This will be an aroma-filled process and not pleasant. Let’s just say starving would help. Do not take this as an endorsement of eating a Monkey Ball I just want to give you both sides of my research.
Even though you cannot eat them (according to most people), Osage Oranges do have many uses. You can see them for sale in the fall at Farmers markets for as much as $2 per fruit! Why would people spend money on an inedible, fleshy green orb the size of a grapefruit or large orange, with a warty, furrowed surface sparsely covered with long coarse hairs? Many swear that Osage Oranges chase away all manner of bugs from a house. They set them in cupboards and behind furniture as natural exterminators. I can remember a monkey ball in every corner of my grandmother’s basement. The fruit and wood of the Osage Orange tree does contain tetrahydroxystilbene, an anti-fungicide that may deter insects, so there might be some truth to this particular wives tale.
Because the wood of the Osage orange is strong, flexible, and takes on a nice finish when polished, Native Americans used it for war clubs, bows and fence posts. Pioneer farmers planted hedges of the thorny trees, which served as excellent windbreaks and barriers to keep cattle in (or out, depending on whose cattle they were). An Osage Orange hedge was considered “horse-high, bull-strong, and pig-tight,” according to historian Paul Landacre in “A Natural History of Western Pennsylvania.”
Osage Orange trees can be propagated from root cuttings or summer branch cuttings, dipped in a rooting agent such as TakeRoot, planted in sand, kept either under mist in a greenhouse, or in a cold frame in your own backyard. You can also buy starts from Amazon. The tree can be grown from a fully mature fruit that falls on the ground however it is a challenge to separate the seeds from the fruit. Either dropping the fruit into a bucket of water or waiting for a late season freezes combined with damp conditions for fruit left on the ground will give you a seed. You can start seeds in pots inside or you can have good luck growing them outside in a planting bed – it’s just more difficult to transplant when they are started in the ground.
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How do you use or remember the Osage Orange? I will love to read your memories in comments! Happy Gathering!!