The Curious Osage Orange Tree

On a recent walk through Morningside Park, Osage Oranges, also known as hedge apples and horse apples, littered the path below Morningside Avenue.

Osage Orange, aka Hedge Apple

Wondering whether the strange orbs provide a seed bonanza for squirrels and raccoons, I gazed up at the overhanging branches where plenty of the softball-sized fruits were still hanging on the branches. (For an Osage Orange fruit dissection, visit Birder’s Lounge.)

Osage Orange on the Tree

The Osage Orange is a curious tree. Native to eastern Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, its wood was used by the Osage Indians to craft superb hunting bows. French trappers who encountered the native population and their bows named the tree bois d’arc, literally meaning “wood of the bow.”  In the Protean, shape-shifting tradition of living languages, the bois d’arc eventually transformed into the Bodark tree.

“Growing up on the prairies of Oklahoma, one of the first trees I learned was the hedge apple or bow dock, as we ungrammatically called it,” wrote Gerald Klingaman, retired University of Arkansas Extension Horticulturist in a brief and lovely article on the Osage Orange. According to Klingaman and other sources, settlers in the Great Plains planted the fast-growing Osage Orange in hedge rows to create a living fence, a thick, thorny barrier that kept livestock in and unwanted varmints out. Barbed wire, invented in the 1870s, would eventually replace the Osage hedge rows, but the trees are used even today as fence posts. A stand of them is said to make a fine wind break.

My trusty field guide to New York City Trees asserts that the “state champion” Osage Orange is growing in someone’s yard out on Staten Island.  (That would be 342 Seguine Avenue, if you care to visit.)  I don’t know what it means to be a state champion tree. What qualifies a tree as a champion?  Is it size or conformation or age or health or connections in high places or … what?

Well, whatever it is, my obsessive research has to stop some time (sadly, I do have other things to attend to), and there are, after all, things in the world that I really don’t need to know. I’m pretty sure the meaning of being a tree champion falls into that category.  So, enough. We will now draw a veil around the New York state champion Osage Orange tree, and move on with our lives.

Until next time.

Explore posts in the same categories: 2011, Fall, Flora, In the City, Morningside Park, November, NYC Parks, Seasons

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16 Comments on “The Curious Osage Orange Tree”

  1. Nechama Says:

    Hi! I’ve seen the same tree (and collected the fruit out of curiosity) at another location in Staten Island while walking through Historic Richmond Town. I have also seen the fruit littered on the front yard of an apartment building in Brooklyn, NY. I had tried to Identify the fruit & couldn’t until now. THX!!

  2. Leslie Kuo Says:

    When I worked at the Marsh Botanical Garden at Yale in Connecticut, one of our trees was declared the state champion Thuja sp? (I’ve forgotten the species). I think it had to be the largest one grown in the open, rather than in a greenhouse. But I don’t know if only height was measured, or estimated total mass, or what…

  3. Mary Says:

    My neighbour gave me the fruit of an osage tree. Have never seen this fruit before. A very interesting fruit, indeed. He found the trees not far from where we live near Cambridge, Ontario, Canada. Apparently this area is not where this tree usually grows.

  4. Mr. Mantooth Says:

    wonderful — I’ve seen these green globes for years without knowing what they are. Edible in any way?

  5. Yeah, Osage Orange trees are really neat. I don’t think they have them here in Vancouver where I live now, but they definitely have them in the Midwest. A fascinating posting. Just enough, not too much info.

    I’ll have to take a look at more of your posts. Great concept.

  6. […] recent post by my fellow naturalist co-conspirator Melissa at Out Walking the Dog mentioned “state champion trees.” I was curious to find out more about these. To be on […]

  7. nycedges Says:

    Ah another enlightening post — and how funny. A couple of weeks ago when in S.I., oddly enough not far from Seguine, I saw hundreds of what I thought were tennis balls all over the street and on someone’s front yard. Why would they be using a ball machine in such a confined area? then realized they were dropping from a huge tree — and now, thanks to you, I know what those arboreal tennis balls were!

  8. Barbara Says:

    I love Mthew’s idea of tree wrasslin – got a big chuckle this morning from me… but the whole idea of Osage Orange trees and their other wonderful names – bow dock, bodark etc… and the original is marvelous as are your photos Melissa – it’s hard not to be curious about things such as those amazing fruit on a fascinating tree. Thanks for sharing.

  9. mthew Says:

    State champeens are the ones that’ve licked all the others in tree wrasslin’.

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