Kansans put ‘brain fruit’ to many different uses

Across the street, I see bags of the “brain fruit” ready for the trash. Just down the street, others are set for the lawn-recycling pick-up. I see them in gutters, along parkways, littering yards and half-eaten by squirrels. A remote town in Kansas shoots them out of cannons and throws them with catapults for fun and prizes. Martha Stewart even has a method of using them in her decorating schemes. They are used as insect repellents, and several Web sites even sell them to our northern neighbors.

“Brain fruit,” “hedge apples,” “hedge balls” and “Osage oranges” are common names given to the fruit of the Osage orange tree (Maclura pomifera). The rough green seed balls average 4-6 inches in diameter and 1 pound each. The tree is a member of the Moraceae family, which includes the mulberry and fig. They are dioecious, meaning they are either male or female, with the fruit coming only from the female tree, ripening in September through November.

Squirrels seem to be the fruit’s only active customer. They are after the hundreds of seeds set deep within and will shred these hard balls to get at them. The milky white sap of the tree and fruit may cause irritation to the human skin; however, neither are poisonous. The fruit, however, may cause problems by lodging in the esophagus of cattle, sheep or horses. It will taint fresh milk, if not dry up a cow entirely.

Homeowners long have collected hedge balls as a pest-control measure. Folklore says they repel cockroaches, spiders, box elder bugs, crickets and silverfish. Spread about the foundation, thrown in the attic, hidden in closets, allowed to wither away in dark corners of the basement, they give the believer a false sense of security. There are as many stories of success as there are stories of failure. One Iowa State University study spread a “chemical extract” from the hedge ball on a control surface. Observations did show that the German cockroach spent more time on the untreated surface. No other studies have given credence to this folklore.

Eureka (east of Wichita) is host to the annual Hedge Ball Chuckin event. How far can a machine throw a hedge ball? This year’s record is 2,094 feet (seven football fields) with an air cannon and 518 feet (1 3/4 football fields) with a trebuchet catapult. The first winner took home $1,000 and the latter $500 in prize money.

The hedge tree is the real prize. Dense foliation let it become the fence row of choice prior to barbed wire in the 1880s. Considered “horse-high, bull strong and hog tight,” these hedge rows promoted the spread of the tree and its contribution to the wildlife of Kansas. It is still prominent in our landscape.

Hedge posts, now strung with barbed wire, have been in the ground for decades without noticeable decay or insect damage. A hedge log will sink if thrown into water and burns almost as hot as coal. The hedge will burn green or dry but gives off showers of small sparks. A chainsaw will spark and dull very quickly when processing the logs. The wood’s strength and flexibility made it a favorite for bows used by the Osage Indians – hence the name Osage orange – and is still prized by some stringed instrument makers due to its density.

With the thorns and sprawling growth, this is not a common urban landscape tree. It certainly provides a sense of history and a bit of folklore to the Kansas prairie.