With Christmas right around the corner and many people putting up Christmas trees, this is a good time to look at the trees that grow in Middle Tennessee. We will also examine their use by the pioneers in the past and even how we use them today.
While we will write about using cedar trees to decorate for the holidays closer to Christmas, this week we will write about a tree that has been dropping its fruit and causing people who are not familiar with it to say, “What is that crazy looking green ball on the ground that looks like monkey brains?”
Well, one answer might be, “that is a horse apple!” Or we may call it a “mock orange” or even a “hedge apple!”
It is indeed a strange-looking object and the tree that drops the alien-looking fruit also goes by several names: Bodock, Hedge apple tree, Osage orange or Bois de’ arc.
And its history is equally strange!
The tree dates back thousands of years and could be found all across North America before the last ice age. After the great sheets of ice retreated from the land, the tree didn’t reoccupy its former lands but was restricted to parts of present-day Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.
One reason is due to its strange fruit.
Most tree fruit benefits from having a sweet taste that attracts animals that eat it, then spread the seeds in their droppings.
But the unique fruit of the Maclura pomifera, its scientific name, are anything but!
If you cut one open, it is sticky and not especially fragrant.
The gooey inside is like latex and, once on your hands, is hard to wash off. Some people will break out in a rash after handling one.
The seeds inside are small and are edible, but getting them out and washing off the goo is too difficult to make the process practical. Although squirrels can do just that. Deer will eat them, as will cows and horses if hungry enough — that’s one reason they are called “horse apples.”
The current theory is that before the ice age, there were large mammals on the continent that could eat and digest the fruit and then spread the seeds — possibly the ancient mastodon or the large ground sloth. Both are long gone from the scene.
One Native American tribe, the Osage Indians, found that the wood was especially hard and excellent for making the bows they used to hunt with. Which leads us to two of the tree’s names: “Osage orange” and “bois de’ arc,” which is French for “wood used for archery.”
The mispronunciation of “bois de’ arc” leads to the other name for the tree: “Bodock.”
The pioneers learned from the Indians how extremely hard the wood was, and soon they were soon using it to make handles for tools and for tree nails, the small round wood pieces used to hold beams together and also used in shipbuilding.
The wood is resistant to rotting and it was soon seeing use as fence posts. One saying in Arkansas was, “Put the small end in the ground and a Bodock post will last 100 years; put the large end in the ground and it will last forever.”
Today the wood’s density sees it used to make turkey and deer calls and guitars.
But the reason we have the trees in Middle Tennessee goes back just a generation or two.
If planted close together and severely pruned, the Osage orange makes a “living fence” or a hedge.
The tree has thorns — don’t walk barefooted around the base of one — and that, combined with its toughness, makes it valuable as a natural fence to keep cattle in.
During the Franklin Roosevelt administration, the tree was promoted for just that use, as well as stopping erosion when that was a big problem during the years of the Dust Bowl.
In Tennessee the state also promoted the planting of the tree for the same reasons, and the state Extension Service encouraged its use. It was, at that time, the most intentionally planted tree in America!
Many people swear that putting a large “hedge apple” under the house will keep spiders away.
One more practical use of the tree is that it burns well. It is said to give off more heat for its size than any other wood you can burn, and gives off little smoke! Sounds like a great wood to toss on the fireplace this holiday!