Osage orange trees (Maclura pomifera) are a familiar site in the Southwest, harking back to the days before barbed wire, when the trees formed living, thorny hedges that marked boundaries and protected livestock from wandering. But while the use of the trees in a hedgerow or as a superb crafting wood are well known, fewer people realize that their large, bumpy fruits--also known as a hedge apples or horse apples--contain their own useful properties.
More anecdotal testimony than scientific data exists on the legendary effectiveness of the “hedge apple” to deter pests of all kinds from the home. Those anecdotes, however, cover a wide range of pests, from cockroaches to mice to wolf spiders. A traditional way of employing the Osage orange involves putting the fruits around the exterior foundation and in basements. A test conducted at Iowa State University determined that volatile oils contained in Osage orange fruits do stop German cockroaches and the maize weevil from crossing areas coated with those oils. Later studies at the same university concluded that the volatile oils contained the isoflavones osajin and pomiferin. Whether the fruits themselves are as effective as the oils produced from pressing them has yet to be determined.
Ceramic artists burn the Osage orange fruit to collect the ash. Potters place a hedge apple directly in an unfired bowl or on a flat pottery piece before it goes into the kiln to achieve a “halo” effect of red and orange circles. Hedgeapples.com suggests setting the kiln to "cone 10" for best results.
Osage oranges add intrigue to dried floral arrangements and wreaths. Dry them whole, halved or in slices for 30 minutes to several hours in a low oven or dehydrator. Once all moisture has been removed from the Osage oranges and they’ve cooled, run a florist’s wire through the fruits and attach them to a wreath. Fasten them to a sturdy branch in a vertical arrangement, or add a ribbon to hang them from a holiday tree. Or place whole, dried fruits in a holiday bowl in groups or interspersed with fruit pomanders. Hedgeapples.com suggests making unique decorative bowls by cutting the fruits in half, molding them around a ball of aluminum foil and drying them in the oven for several days with the pilot light on.
A 2007 study conducted by Lipid Corps. to determine the nutritional value of Osage orange seeds found that the seeds contain significant amounts of protein and carbohydrates as well as potassium, calcium and magnesium. While the study was undertaken to determine Osage orange seeds’ commercial viability, potentially home harvesters can use the fruits to feed their own farm animals or pets. A veterinarian should be consulted before adding the seeds to any animal’s diet.
The two isoflavones believed to act as effective pest repellants--osajin and pomiferin--may also be promising antioxidants. A 2003 study conducted by the Food Research Program at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada found these two antioxidants were comparable in effectiveness to vitamins C and E, also antioxidants, in helping protect the body from environmental stresses that make the body vulnerable to cancer. The isoflavens need to be extracted and isolated from the non-edible Osage orange, making it a potential medicinal supplement but currently impractical as a home-harvested remedy. Still, in the long list of uses of the versatile Osage orange, its slowly unfolding medical potential may prove the most "useful" of all.