One day in October I was looking for parking in a residential area in Washington, DC. When I found a stretch about a quarter block long that was devoid of cars, two thoughts went through my mind in quick succession: “hooray!” and “wait, this is too good to be true.”
It was too good to be true, not because of DC’s often byzantine parking restrictions, but because of the large number of softball-sized green things on the street: brain fruits, also known as hedge apples, horse apples, monkey balls, mock oranges, and osage oranges. Those things falling off a tree can put a heck of a dent in a car.
autumn leaves and characteristic deeply furrowed bark
These fruits come from the tree Maclura pomifera, which goes by many common names, including the ones above (except brain fruit and monkey balls), yellow-wood, and bodark, a corruption of the French name bois d’arc (bow-wood). It’s in the mulberry family (Moraceae), which also includes fig (Ficus carica), jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus), and breadfruit (Artocarpus altilus). Jackfruits are thought to be the largest tree-fruit in the world (they can weigh up to 80 pounds), and breadfruit saplings were the precious cargo on the HMS Bounty when the crew mutinied.
The native range of the osage orange is thought to be Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, primarily in the Red River basin. However, it can be found across much of North America because 1. it was extensively planted for hedgerows and windbreaks, and 2. as a pioneer species it can be agressive or even weedy. But it was incredibly useful, with highly rot-resistant wood that made great fence posts as well as bows and tool handles. And it’s thorny, so planted close together and pruned to keep it short and dense it made effective livestock fencing: “horse high, bull strong and hog tight”, as the saying went.*
leaf and fruit; this leaf blade measured 6.5″, and the petiole another 2.5″;
the fruit was 3.5″ in diameter
The tree can grow to a height of 65 feet, but is often somewhat shorter. It’s dioecious, meaning that plants bear either male or female flowers. Despite having a specimen almost in my backyard, I’ve never seen the flowers, which are generally described as “inconspicuous”.
But I see plenty of brain fruits.
One time a few years ago a big storm knocked a large, mostly dead branch off the tree and into my yard. I was happy to collect the wood, cut it, and season it, because osage orange wood has ridiculously high BTU value.
*I spent a long time trying to find the origin of this phrase. The earliest use I could find was as a description of a “lawful” fence (osage orange or not), in an 1878 newspaper article in Sherill’s History of Lincoln County, North Carolina:
The question of no fence law was agitated. Up to this time cattle and hogs had free range and field crops had to be fenced in. A lawful fence was “horse high, bull strong and hog tight.”