Garden Variety: Find a constructive use for hedge apples

The chartreuse, bumpy, softball-sized fruit of the Osage orange tree, known as a hedge apple, is finally gaining some value as a fall decoration.

The unique fruit is generally easy to find in fall along with pumpkins, mums, cornstalks and fallen leaves, so including it in displays only makes sense. The trees that hedge apples are produced on are common in old Kansas fencerows and windbreaks, but the fruit has previously held little value beyond its falsely rumored pest-control qualities.

Hedge apples are also known as hedge balls, horse apples and monkey balls. The trees they are produced on, the Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) are also sometimes called hedge or bois d’arc trees.

Although hedge apples are typically plentiful in fall, they are usually considered a nuisance. Their large size makes them prominent in their site and difficult to mow over. They will persist into the following year if left where they fall. The color is less attractive than the reds, yellows, oranges and purples typically associated with fall color patterns.

A very persistent old wives’ tale about hedge apples is that placing them in a home, or in its basement or crawlspace, will deter spiders, as well as cockroaches and other crawling insects. Research has proven that the compounds in hedge apples can be extracted and concentrated into a substance with natural pest-repellent qualities, but that the natural concentration of these compounds is too low in the fruit itself to be effective.

Hedge apples contain a seed that is nutritious and occasionally appealing to squirrels, but digging the small seed from the aggregate fruit is usually more work than humans or animals care to perform. Hedge apples also contain a milky white sap that may cause skin irritation.

Osage orange trees are small to medium, spreading, gangly trees native to the Red River valley in southeast Oklahoma, north Texas and southwest Arkansas. Early settlers found value in the Osage orange for its easy transplantability, tolerance of poor soils and Midwestern temperature extremes, and resistance to pests. The stocky wide-spreading trees could also be pruned into hedges or living fences that were

thick and impenetrable enough to contain livestock before the creation of barbed wire.

The wood of Osage orange is also highly resistant to pests and very durable, so after barbed wire came along the wood was a favorite for fence posts. The wood is also favored for bows, which gave it the French nickname bois d’arc, or bow wood.

Osage orange trees are dioecious, meaning that there are male trees, which produce pollen, and female trees that produce fruit. In most cases, the male tree is considered more desirable due to the lack of hedge balls, and researchers are working toward male Osage orange trees that might be desirable for home landscapes.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.