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An Osage orange is more than an orange

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What is round like a grapefruit, greenish-yellow, and pimply? If you are like me, my answer from two years ago was, “I don’t have a clue!”

At that time, I was walking along Fieldston Road where it crosses over Henry Hudson Parkway at West 253rd Street, and I saw these strange round fruits lying under a tree. Examining the leaves of the suspect tree was not enlightening.

Once again, the plant identification unit at the New York Botanical Garden came to the rescue. It turned out that it was an Osage orange.

Now, oranges are plentiful, and the Osage are an Amerindian tribe from the Midwest — Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma — but I had never heard of an Osage orange before.

This past September, I saw the tree laden with fruit, but they were out of reach. Finally, in November, I found some fruits scattered beneath the tree. I grabbed two, brought them home, and sliced one open to examine the seeds.

Since the outer surface of the fruit feels quite tough, I used a saw and expected some resistance. Instead, it cut easily, and I found it filled with a white pith and many seeds.

Since there was some discussion in the literature that the latex-like sap might be irritating, I handled the fruits wearing rubber gloves.

Despite the warning, I found the aroma of the cut fruit to be quite pleasant.

The Osage orange — Maclura pomifera — is a rose relative, although it is more closely related to the mulberry than our garden flower. The mulberry and the “orange” are members of the family Moraceae. Once again, we have a dioecious tree, meaning that there are male and female trees with fruit growing only on the female tree.

Surprisingly, if a female flower is not fertilized, it will still produce the “orange,” although this fruit will not contain seeds.

There are numerous botanical terms to accurately describe fruits. The drupe is a fleshy fruit with a stone in the center, and each fruit is derived from a single carpel (ovary). Obvious examples include almonds, peaches and apricots.

However, the situation can be quite complicated in discussing other fruits, such as the raspberry and the mulberry.

Suffice it to say, the Osage orange is considered a syncarp, meaning the fruit represents a number of small drupes, the carpels of which have grown together.

There are three terms referring to this tree — Osage, Maclura and pomifera — that bear examining. The term pomifera is obvious, simply meaning fruit-bearing. Maclura was chosen to honor William Maclure, a naturalized citizen born in Scotland, referred to as the “father of American geology.”

This title was probably related to his creation in 1809 of the first geologic map of the United States, with particular emphasis on the Appalachians.

At that time the United States occupied only the area east of the Mississippi.
Osage is the least obvious.

The Osage were an important Amerindian tribe who were forced in 1870 per the Drum Creek Treaty to move to Indian Territory (today the state of Oklahoma).

They enter our story because Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame) sent President Thomas Jefferson samples of the tree given to him by Pierre Chouteau in 1804. The Chouteau family was involved in trading with the Indians, particularly the Osage.

Although those specimens died, Lewis sent back other samples in 1807, which did survive.

Meanwhile, the tree was also known as bois d’arc, which is French for “bow wood.” The Osage favored this wood for bow-making. This word has been corrupted into “bodark,” or “bowdarc.”

Despite the fact that I was unacquainted with this tree, at one time it was the most widely planted tree in America.

A native tree, its natural range was the Red River Valley of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas.

However, because it is highly adaptable to a wide range of poor soils, it has naturalized across the country.

Today, there are thornless cultivars — “White Shield,” “Wichita” and “pink.” The original thorny form was used as a hedge because it resembled barbed wire and prevented cattle from wandering.

Because the wood is highly resistant to rotting, it was much in demand for fencing posts after the introduction of barbed wire. It also was used for barn beams, wheel rims and tool handles.

During the 1930s, it was used by the Works Progress Administration to prevent erosion.

I have the two Osage orange fruits overwintering in a cool garage, and I will try to germinate them in the coming spring. Since a falling fruit can easily crack a windshield, I just have remember to plant it far from the street.

Have a thought or comment for Sura Jeselsohn? Email her at greenscenesura@gmail.com.

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