This is a story about Osage Orange trees (Maclura pomifera)– also know as hedge apple or horse apples. If you look closely, as I did on my recent trip to semi rural Kansas on the outskirts of Kansas City, you will see many Osage Orange trees. This tree has a distinctive fruit which can be from four to six inches in diameter. The fruit is shed in September and October and can be lethal if by chance you are under a tree when one of the fruits fall! This tree is very durable and transplants easily. It withstands dryness and wet conditions equally well and it can withstand extremes in temperature and soil pH. It also can withstand wind. Here is where the tree is most fascinating. It has a distinctive place in American history. During the early days of farming before barbed wire was developed, farmers planted the Osage Orange tree in rows to mark a fence line or hedgerow. They also used these trees to shield crops from the wind. During the 1930’s a ‘dust bowl’ developed in the midwest due to unimpeded winds blowing across open land. Osage Orange was one of the main trees used as a wind break to shelter plantings.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched an ambitious project in 1934 to prevent erosion in the Great Plaines and over the period between 1934 and 1943 ordered the planting of 220 million trees. Over 18,600 miles of trees were planted prevent soil erosion. You can still see many of these trees in Kansas. The tree also has a place in the expansion of America westward. This tree has heavy close-grained wood and was prized by settlers for its use as tool handles, bows, and bowls. It burns slowly and hot allowing this tree to produce fire wood that the settlers used for cooking and heating. The Osage Orange tree has a special place in American history. The next time you see these trees with its distinctive fruit, keep in mind many are over 75 years old and served an important role in stopping the devastating effects of erosion in America’s heartland and provided settlers with many of the raw materials they needed to survive. By the way, I have seen this tree in Philadelphia and other cities. It’s hardy nature allows it to grow where few plants thrive.