THE BOTANICAL BLOG
By Peter Longley, Horticultural Interpreter
Springfield-Greene County Botanical Center and Gardens
2400 S. Scenic Avenue, Springfield, MO 65807
Friday, September 14, 2012
Horticulture, local history, legend and myth, all come together at this time of the year when one of our most asked questions in the Springfield Botanical Gardens is, “What are the large yellow-green fruit balls falling from those trees?” “They are Osage Apples,” I reply. Others correct me: “They are more like oranges.” Others call them “Monkey Brains”, and assuredly the wrinkled flesh and approximate size of each fruit fits that description. Horticulturally, they are Maclura pomifera, a member of the Mulberry family and called pomifera because of their fruit’s perceived apple-like appearance. This odd fruit has no edible value, however, although contrary to original concepts, it is not poisonous but animals leave it alone because it has almost no nutritious value. However, Indians and early settlers noted that the fruits ward off spiders and other bugs and are a natural pesticide. Pioneers often put them under their beds in the fall for this purpose. Scientific studies have found that extracts of Osage apples or oranges do repel several insect species, in some studies just as well as the widely used synthetic insecticide DEET.
They were first discovered in eastern Texas in an area inhabited by the Osage Indians. The Indians used the sturdy bush trees for timber, using the flexible younger branches to make their bows. Thus the wood became known by the French explorers of the lower Midwest as “Bois d’Arc” or wood of the arc (bow). Settlers used the trees in East Texas for hedging, which is why today the fruits are also sometimes called “Hedge apples”. Pioneers also used the timber for fencing. Because of this useful property, the trees were spread into a large area of the mid-west and a French Trading post established in the hills of Arkansas and Missouri in the 1700s was named “Aux Arc” after the “Bois d’Arc trees”. In turn the French name spread to the whole area in an anglicized form, “The Ozarks”. Bois d’Arc, Missouri, however, still carries the original popular name of the useful hedging shrub trees that had once been the staple for the Osage Indians’ hunting bows.
A more modern use for the Osage apple has been found in floral art. Cut open and dried, the fruits can be made into interesting sculpted arrangements, so they have a decorative purpose as well as their historical usage. In fact, if you want to ward off spiders and other insects in your home and create a decorative look, a bowl of Osage apples might do the trick! During the month of September we have such a bowl on the counter of the Reception desk at the Springfield-Greene County Botanical Center with a brief explanation about this strange fruit. The large round fruits are decorative in their own right even without sculpting.
Don’t forget that this weekend the Gray-Campbell Farmstead 1860’s Lifestyle Exposition in Nathanael Greene Park kicks off at 11:00 a.m. on Saturday with an ‘Old Time Fiddle and Music Jam’. Delicious cookies will be baking in the hearth, costumed guides will be taking you back to yesteryear and various arts and crafts will be demonstrated. This is a great and educational outing for all the family. The exposition is open 11:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Saturday and 12 Noon (after the 11:00 am ‘Old Fashioned Brush Arbor Meeting’) until 4:30 p.m. on Sunday. This event is free. Check to see if there are any Osage apples under the beds in the old Campbell home!