What Is the Osage Orange Tree?


A table with a bowl filled with Osage oranges is delightful in the autumn. The Osage orange is a thorny-branched tree you don't casually wish to come into contact with, but you will be allured by the fragrant, softball-sized yellow-green fruits that have a leathery, reptile-like skin. The tree is adaptable, needing lots of sunshine but tolerating both winter cold and summer heat if grown in a well-draining soil.


The Osage orange tree is a flowering plant, or angiosperm, and is classified into the mulberry family, Moraceae. It belongs to the botanical genus, or similar plant grouping, of Maclura. For precise identification and discussion, the scientific name Maclura pomifera is cited.


The name "Osage orange" arose with association of the plant with a nearby Native American tribe. Native to the south-central United States, around the Red River in Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas, the natural distribution of the plant corresponded to the homeland Osage Indians. The fruits, being fragrant, reminded English-speaking settlers of an orange. French-speaking settlers to North America called this tree "bois d'arc," referring to the use of the wood for making bows. English-speakers then corrupted this name and called it "bodark." Last, it is also known as "hedge apple," referring to its popular use as an inpenetrable thicket to mark field lines and contain cattle.


Growing to 50 feet tall and 40 feet wide at maturity, the Osage orange is a deciduous tree with a rounded shape. Its branches are lined with large thorns, especially when young, and oval, pointy dark green leaves that turn yellow in fall. Tiny cup-shaped flowers of yellow-green appear in early summer. Trees bear either male or female flowers, and only the female-flowering plants produce fruits after pollination. The tree produces suckers, or sprouting stems from surface roots, allowing it to quickly become a small grove or thicket.


The female trees bear showy fruits with a wrinkled skin that ripen by early autumn. These yellow-green fruits are round, about 5 inches in diameter, and have a delicious citrusy fragrance. Squirrels love to eat them, but humans should only eat the small seeds inside the fruit that are encased in fibrous pulp.


Being an ornamental tree with peculiar fruits, the Osage orange remains popular as a garden plant. However, the large spines/thorns on branches proves hazardous. Select thornless varieties "White Shield" or "Wichita" if you wish to harvest fruits, while a male-flowering selection, "Double O," is better for street tree use as it produces much less litter.

Keywords: Maclura pomifera, hedge apple, Moraceae

About this Author

James Burghardt has written for "The Public Garden," "Docent Educator," non-profit newsletters and for horticultural databases, becoming a full-time writer in 2008. He holds a Master of Science in public horticulture from the University of Delaware and studied horticulture and biology in Australia at Murdoch University and the University of Melbourne.