It has, in fact, become one of the most widely and successfully distributed species in the entire U.S. Today, osage orange (Maclura pomifera) can be found naturalized across most of the eastern U.S. and into the great plains states. Some populations exist even farther west, where they were planted along settlement trails by pioneers making their way across the Western frontier.
The osage orange is also sometimes called hedge apple or simply "hedge", a reference to both its fruit and its qualities as a tenacious property marker. Although part of the mulberry family rather than a citrus, the aromatic fruit, when ripe, emits an odor reminiscent of orange peel. After Lewis and Clark encountered an osage orange specimen on their great expedition westward, they sent slips of the tree back to the nation’s capital. In a letter to President Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis remarked on the natives' “extravagant account of the exquisite odor of this fruit when it has obtained maturity.” In some regions, osage orange is called bodark from the French “bois d’arc,” for the fine bow wood it yields.
Growing into a large shrub or small tree, the osage orange reaches about 20 to 30 feet high. The species is dioecious, that is, each individual tree is either a male or female. Small green flowers appear on female trees in May or June, maturing into large fruits that ripen and begin to fall to the ground in September and October. The leaves are glossy and tapered, with smooth margins, measuring 3 to 6 inches long. A short, thick thorn grows from the twig where the leaf emerges.
The round, dense, wrinkled-looking fruits are yellowish-green on the outside. Inside, they are filled with stringy flesh, white seeds and sticky white juice. Measuring 6 inches in diameter, the large balls become quite noticeable in autumn, persisting on the stems even after the tree’s bright yellow autumn leaves have fallen. Inedible to humans and little eaten by animals except for squirrels, the fruit of the osage orange has long had a reputation as a natural pest repellent. Studies have shown that although the fruits do contain compounds that repel insects, they are in too low a concentration to be useful. If you’re collecting the fruit for fall decoration, it’s a good idea to wear gloves, since the milky juice of the stems and fruit can irritate the skin.
Long before Europeans set foot on the American continent, native tribes were using the wood of the osage orange for archery bows and handles. Highly sought after as a barter item, the bows were traded widely, being used by tribes as far away as the Shawnee of Ohio and Blackfoot of Montana.
Early explorers and frontiersmen quickly adopted use of the wood, finding it ideal for wagon wheels and cattle yokes. Soon the settlers began planting the trees as wind breaks, and as living fences to mark their property boundaries. When pruned as a hedge, thorny osage orange forms a barrier impenetrable to both humans and livestock. Even after the invention of barbed wire eliminated the need for such plantings, the tree’s wood continued to prove useful. Its other applications included fence posts and railroad ties, because its density made it impervious to decay or termites. Additionally, the bark was used for leather tanning and cloth dye. During WWI, when chemical dyes were in short supply, osage orange provided the coloring agent for the G.I.s' drab khaki uniforms.