The Osage orange is a deciduous tree whose qualities actually helped it expand from its original form. It is not an actual citrus tree and over the years acquired nicknames such as “hedge apple” and “bodark”, the latter being a French slang term that refers to the Native Americans using the wood in their bows. Osage orange trees are available as landscaping species, with some genetically designed to lack some of the tree’s more unpleasant features.
The Osage orange is a medium-sized tree, typically around 30 feet high, with spines on its branches and trunk. The dark green leaves are as long as 6 inches and taper to a point; they turn yellow in the fall. The trunk is short and the branches grow in such a manner that they frequently overlap. The gray to brown bark has deep furrows and ridges and the small green flowers develop around June, with male and female flowers on separate trees.
The original geographic distribution of this tree encompassed southeastern parts of Oklahoma, a strip though East Texas and parts of Arkansas. However, the tree’s thorny nature made it a perfect species to plant close together to form a barrier, long before the advent of barbed wire in the 1880s, according to the Great Plains Nature Center website. Farmers and ranchers would use the tree to build a “living fence,” as it was nearly impenetrable to cattle, horses and other animals. The species gets its odd name from the fact that the Osage tribe resided near the tree’s native range and the fruit has an aroma that reminds many people of an orange.
The fruit of the Osage orange consists of a fleshy middle that has as many as 200 seeds surrounding it. The fruit has a stringy texture and looks like a yellow-green ball. The seeds have a slimy husk around them but are edible if you desire to take the trouble to remove the husk. Squirrels in particular make the effort, as they find these seeds delightful and will spend hours by an Osage orange, tearing into the fruit.
The fruit itself--along with the fact that you can plant the Osage orange in many places where other trees will not grow--make it a landscaping tree worth exploring. You can transplant them easily, as the pioneers on the range did at one time. You can also grow them from the seeds, but remember that you have to separate these seeds from the fruit. Try planting one inside in a pot and then transfer it outdoors, into the ground, when they begin to sprout. It takes about 10 years for the tree to be of a size where it provides shade. By planting Osage orange trees about 5 feet apart, you will create a hedgerow, but you must prune the trees as they mature.
Horticultural science has attempted to produce cultivars of the Osage orange without the thorns, which are strong enough and sharp enough to puncture tires. The “Double O” type produces no fruit and the thorns appear only on the younger stems, states the University of Connecticut Plant Database website. The “Wichita” cultivar has dense branches higher up, and fewer thorns than other hybrids of this species. One variety, known as “White Shield,” grows rapidly and has shiny green leaves.