Hedge Apples, Spiders, and Mice

From out in the southwest, in the drainage area of the Red River in Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas, came a deciduous tree known as the Osage Orange (Maclura pomifera), often called the Hedge Tree. It was prized for its wood by the Osage Nation of Native Americans, as well as the Cherokee—producing the finest hunting bows available (the only challenger might be the English yew). Indeed, 200 years ago it was said that an osage bow was worth more than a horse and blanket.

As the hedge tree naturalized in the United States, it became prized by Midwest farmers and ranchers. With its sharp thorns, it was planted to make living fences, called hedgerows, before the introduction of barbed wire, and because of its resistance to insects and moisture—better than today's treated wood—it was prized for fence posts. It also found its way into tool handles and furniture, and was a primary tree in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's WPA project called the "Great Plains Shelterbelt," where 220 million trees were planted, stretching for 18,600 miles. And there are a lot of old farmers around our area who remember as kids being sent out of the farmhouse during the winter months, getting combat pay to prune the lower branches of the hedge trees serving as wind breaks or living fences on the field edges of their family farms.

Osage Orange is an unusual tree with thick and strong roots covered with bright orange bark. It is said by bulldozer operators that it's harder to knock down an osage than an oak. Out in Texas the trees may grow to 30 feet, but here in Illinois the older ones seem closer to 60 feet. The wood is hard and it sure is tough on chainsaws. When dry, it burns hot, with more BTUs than any commonly available wood in North America. The trees are tough and long lived. There is an Osage Orange tree at a farm in Alexandria, Virginia that is thought to have been a gift from Thomas Jefferson.

This brings us to hedge apples, which is a common name given to the fruit of the Osage Orange. There are male trees and female trees, but only the females bear fruit. One of the photos with this article shows the female inflorescence. The fruit, like the tree, is unusual; it's a heavy ball, ranging from 3–6 inches in diameter, and it has a tough, wrinkled, or bumpy surface, which turns from dull green in the summer to bright yellow-green in the autumn as the leaves fall. It's full of sticky, acrid white latex or milk (be careful, it just might irritate the skin) along with hundreds of seeds, and it emits an "orange" scent from which the tree derived its name. Squirrels and chipmunks love hedge apples; humans do not, but they're not poisonous. Cattle can choke on them.

What humans have discovered is that lots of insects really don't like the glossy leaves, the branches, or the bark of this tree. And they particularly don't like the fruit—the hedge apples. It turns out that chemicals in the fruit repel spiders and quite a few different insects, and a good number of folks in the country used to place hedge apples under the bed or in the cellar to keep away spiders (but be sure to put the fruit in open plastic bags, because it softens and rots in less than 6 months). In fact, studies have shown that extracts from the fruit repel some insects just as well as DEET.

This brings us then to mice. There apparently are no scientific studies, so it may be just a myth, but there are a good number of farmers that place hedge apples in their combines over the winter to keep mice out of the wiring, and this author has become a believer (or wants to believe) and so we have some around. We also use them in bowls as decorations at Thanksgiving.

Dick Robrock (2007)