Every year, people working in Facilities start bringing me these tennis ball sized fruit. Last year, I decided to have some fun, and started freaking people out, acting incredulous they were actually touching them, and insisting they go wash their hands immediately, or terrible things would happen. This year I’m pretending they fell off the moon, and just happened to roll down to the front of the auto shop.
The truth is almost as strange. Middlebury College is in posecession of Vermont’s largest Osage Orange tree, Maclura pomifera. The circumference of the trunk is only 40″, nowhere near the record tree in Virginia of 321″. Ours is under the shade of a large sugar maple, and sits at the top of Stewart Hill, where its tennis ball sized fruit promptly roll downhill, over the speed dip, and end up near all the equipment.
Originally native only to southern Oklahoma and northern Texas, the Osage Orange was introduced far out of it’s range by using it as fencing, as it’s thorns and brushy nature made great hedges to keep out cattle. It met the demand of a hedge in the wild west , “horse high, bull strong, and pig tight.” I’ve chased a loose pig before. Pig tight is saying quite a bit.
Alas, it was not hedge clippers, but barbed wire that won the west, replacing Osage Orange in the 1880’s. The edible (?) fruit is cherished by squirrels, but more commonly used as holiday decorations. Some have described the fruit as “brain-like”. If my brain were only that large…Chemical compounds in the fruit repel insects, although the whole fruit itself does not. The fruit is anachronistic. Usually large fruit is a method of seed dispersal, but squirrels are notoriously finicky on that front. Some theorists state that an extinct Ground Sloth used to aid in the spread of the plant. Indeed, the fossil record shows a much larger range to the genus than what we see now.
The wood itself is remarkably able to resist rot and decay-and has been used as railroad ties and pavement blocks, as well as a superior wood for bows (archery, not violins). A bright yellow dye can be extracted from the bark.
Horticulturists like some parts of the Osage Orange. It’s yellow gold fall color can frequently rate spectacular, and it also boasts a pretty orange brown older bark. Michael Dirr, expert on all landscape plants, says the fruit is “effective in September, and lethal in October if one is sitting under the tree” and states that one should “select male trees; the large fruits are a nuisance and a problem around public areas as people will invariably use them for ammunition”. Male trees are being selected, and cultivars developed for use as a street tree. The species is remarkably tough, able to grow nearly anywhere. One last thought-Osage Orange is dioecious. Male and female flowers appear on separate plants, and of course you need both to pollinate. So, while our clearly female tree still sets fruit, they are sterile. Large, but sterile nonetheless.
So ours sits, unremarkable most of the year, until the fruit starts rolling. I don’t know how it ended up planted there, or even where it was grown. I’ve never even seen one for sale.