Who knew such a viciously spined tree from America could produce inquisitive and deliciously fragranced fruits that rival softballs in size? The small deciduous osage orange tree is tolerant of heat, cold and occasional drought, making it a great choice for water-conservation gardens. Just remember that if you want to enjoy the big fruits, make sure you grow both a male and female tree.
Osage orange hails from the plains of the central United States, from Arkansas westward into Oklahoma and Texas.
Osage orange is known botanically as Maclura pomifera, and some literature may use the synonym of Maclura aurantiaca. It is a member of the mulberry family, Moraceae. Other common name is horse-apple or hedge-apple.
This is a round-canopied deciduous tree that has a short trunk with gnarled, cracked bark of gray-brown and orange. Its branches are many and dense, criss-crossing into a thicket and laced with thorns. The leaves are deep green and oval, turning yellow in autumn before dropping.
Trees are either male or female in gender; flowers are small, cup-shaped and yellow-green in early summer. Only female flowers ripen into large, grapefruit-sized fruits that are citrus-scented and display wrinkled, warty skin of light yellow-green. It grows quickly to a mature height of 20 to 40 feet with equal spread.
Plant osage orange trees in any well-draining soil in full sun, where it receives at least 8 hours of direct sunlight each day. It is adaptable to many soil types with average fertility, although rich soils are certainly not required for this plant to prosper. It is hardy to USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 5 through 9, and with some protection from cold winter winds, into the warmer parts of Zone 4.
Four cultivated varieties or cultivars warrant consideration in garden settings. Selection Double O is male flowering and upright in habit, not producing fruits while Inermis is thornless. White leaves are found on Pulverulenta and the selection Wichita does not produce the large wrinkled fruits and is nearly thornless.
Growing in harsh conditions without help from gardeners, osage orange makes a steadfast, impenetrable hedgerow or fence-line. Singular specimen plants incorporate well into water-conserving xeriscape landscapes. Thornless and male-flowering varieties of this tree are preferred for use in gardens, but female plants create the large rounded fruits loved to decorate and fragrance tables in autumn, making inquisitive and interesting focal points and conversation pieces.