The fruit resembles a green, softball-sized brain.
But Lewis Meriwether didn’t know that in April 1804 when he found “some slips of the Osages Plums and Apples” in St. Louis. The explorer-botanist shipped them to Thomas Jefferson who shared the plants with Bernard McMahon in Philadelphia.
McMahon, “America’s pioneer nurseryman,” planted seven of Lewis’ cuttings in front of his store on Fourth Street, adjoining the churchyard of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.
More than 200 years later, the trees still bear their sticky, milky, sappy orbs-a bit of history I’d love to behold some autumn day thanks to Founding Gardeners by Andrea Wulf.
Following the steps of French explorers and traders, Lewis learned the Osage Indian and other tribes used the tree’s wood for bow making. Not too far into the future from Lewis and Clark’s westward expedition, pioneers planted Osage seedlings to provide thorny boundaries and windbreaks on America’s prairies.
Some southwest farmers planted all manner of fruit-bearing shrubs between the Osage trees for a bird habitat within the impenetrable hedge.
This clever idea appeals to me like the little fen where our hens like to hang out. My husband calls it “the back forty” of our three and a half acres.
Long before we moved north of 32 Mile Road, this Macula pomifera barrier fell out of fashion with the advent of barbed wire and the tractor. Some landowners used the rot-resistant timber from the Osage tree for their fence posts that outlived the barbed wire.
I knew nothing of the bow-making tree when l first drove my daughters east on 32 Mile to Romeo schools thirty-one years ago. Come fall, I spied something green smashed on the road that had fallen from branches above the Cusick Lake curve.
Now, it’s a dangerous, blind bend, so I dared not stop my car to satisfy my curiosity about botanical road kill.
Eighteen years later, my handyman Andy showed up one day with two buckets. “Here are some Osage oranges for your farm’s Christmas sale. They repel spiders,” he said. “I’d charge a buck a piece.”
I did, and sold out of the citrus-scented arachnid chasers. The ripe fruit contains a chemical (2, 3, 4, 5-tetrahydroxystilbene) that deters many insects.
By the way, you need a male tree nearby for the female to bear fruit.
What I enjoy most about the Osage orange, named bois d’arc by early French explorers, is foraging them to design Christmas decorations.
Last week, my friend Marilyn emailed a timely reminder with a photo of her Osage oranges she gathered on the west side of the state. Post haste, I drove to my local source and filled two bags.
Dear Reader, we have Pierre Chouteau to thank for obtaining the species from an Osage Indian who harvested the fruit about three hundred miles west of his village.
And thank you, Mister Meriwether, for putting Monsieur Chouteau’s saplings into Thomas Jefferson’s hands. The chartreuse fruit arrives just in time to make merry snowmen for Christmas.
Contact Iris at email@example.com.