|Osage orange foliage and fruit|
Maclura pomifera, commonly known as the Osage orange, is a small deciduous tree or large shrub, typically growing to 8 to 15 metres (30–50 ft) tall. The distinctive fruit, from a multiple fruit family, is roughly spherical, bumpy, 8 to 15 centimetres (3–6 in) in diameter, and turns a bright yellow-green in the fall. The fruits exude a sticky white latex when cut or damaged. Despite the name "Osage orange", it is only very distantly related to the orange, and is instead a member of the mulberry family, Moraceae.
M. pomifera has been known by a variety of common names in addition to Osage orange, including hedge apple, horse apple, bois d'arc, bodark, bow-wood, yellow-wood, mock orange and monkey ball.
The earliest account of the tree in the English language was given by William Dunbar, a Scottish explorer, in his narrative of a journey made in 1804 from St. Catherine's Landing on the Mississippi River to the Ouachita River. It was a curiosity when Meriwether Lewis sent some slips and cuttings to President Jefferson in March 1804. According to Lewis's letter, the samples were donated by "Mr. Peter Choteau, who resided the greater portion of his time for many years with the Osage Nation." Those cuttings didn't survive, but later the thorny Osage orange tree was widely naturalized throughout the United States. In 1810, Bradbury relates that he found two trees growing in the garden of Pierre Chouteau, one of the first settlers of St. Louis, apparently the same person.
The trees acquired the name bois d'arc, or "bow-wood", from early French settlers who observed the wood being used for war clubs and bow-making by Native Americans. Meriwether Lewis was told that the people of the Osage Nation, "So much … esteem the wood of this tree for the purpose of making their bows, that they travel many hundreds of miles in quest of it." Many modern archers assert the wood of the Osage orange is superior even to English Yew for this purpose, though this opinion is by no means unanimous. The trees are also known as "bodark" or "bodarc" trees, most likely originating from a corruption of "bois d'arc." The Comanches also used this wood for their bows. It was popular with them because it was strong, flexible and durable, and was common along river bottoms of the Comanchería. Some historians believe that the high value this wood had to Native Americans throughout North America for the making of bows, along with its small natural range, contributed to the great wealth of the Spiroan Mississippian culture that controlled all the land in which these trees grew.
Mature trees range from 12 to 18 metres (40–60 ft) tall with short trunks and round-topped canopies. The roots are thick, fleshy, and covered with bright orange bark. The tree's mature bark is dark, deeply furrowed and scaly.
The wood of M. pomifera is bright orange-yellow with paler yellow sapwood. The wood is heavy, hard, strong, and flexible, capable of receiving a fine polish and very durable in contact with the ground. It has a specific gravity of 0.7736, or 773.6 kg/m3 (48.29 lb/cu ft).
Leaves and branches
Leaves are arranged alternately in a slender growing shoot 90 to 120 centimetres (3–4 ft) long. In form they are simple, a long oval terminating in a slender point. The leaves are 8 to 13 centimetres (3–5 in) long and 5 to 8 centimetres (2–3 in) wide, and are thick, firm, dark green, shining above, and paler green below when full grown. In autumn they turn bright yellow. The leaf axils contain formidable spines which when mature are about 2.5 centimetres (1 in) long.
Branchlets are at first bright green and pubescent; during their first winter they become light brown tinged with orange, and later they become a paler orange brown. Branches contain a yellow pith, and are armed with stout, straight, axillary spines. During the winter, the branches bear lateral buds that are depressed-globular, partly immersed in the bark, and pale chestnut brown in color.
Flowers and fruit
As a dioecious plant, the inconspicuous pistillate (female) and staminate (male) flowers are found on different trees. Staminate flowers are pale green, small, and arranged in racemes borne on long, slender, drooping peduncles developed from the axils of crowded leaves on the spur-like branchlets of the previous year. They feature a hairy, four-lobed calyx; the four stamens are inserted opposite the lobes of calyx, on the margin of a thin disk. Pistillate flowers are borne in a dense spherical many-flowered head which appears on a short stout peduncle from the axils of the current year's growth. Each flower has a hairy four-lobed calyx with thick, concave lobes that invest the ovary and enclose the fruit. Ovaries are superior, ovate, compressed, green, and crowned by a long slender style covered with white stigmatic hairs. The ovule is solitary.
The mature fruit's size and general appearance resembles a large, yellow-green orange, 10 to 13 centimetres (4–5 in) in diameter, with a roughened and tuberculated surface. The compound fruit is a syncarp of numerous small drupes, in which the carpels (ovaries) have grown together. Each small drupe is oblong, compressed and rounded; they contain a milky juice which oozes when the fruit is damaged or cut. The seeds are oblong. Although the flowering is dioecious, the pistillate tree even when isolated will bear large oranges, perfect to the sight but lacking the seeds.
Osage orange's pre-Columbian range was largely restricted to the Red River drainage of Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas, as well as the Blackland Prairies and Post Oak Savannas. A disjunct population also occurred in the Chisos Mountains of Texas. It has since become widely naturalized in the United States and Ontario. Osage orange has been planted in all the 48 conterminous States and in southeastern Canada.
The largest Osage orange tree is located at River Farm, in Alexandria, Virginia, and is believed to have been a gift from Thomas Jefferson. Another historic tree is located on the grounds of Fort Harrod, a Kentucky pioneer settlement in Harrodsburg, Kentucky.
Ecological aspects of historical distribution
The natural mechanism of seed dispersal for Osage orange, and the reason for its limited historical range despite its adaptability, has been the subject of debate. One hypothesis is that the Osage orange fruit was eaten by a giant ground sloth that became extinct shortly after the first human settlement of North America. Other extinct Pleistocene megafauna, such as the mammoth, mastodon and gomphothere, may have fed on the fruit and aided in seed dispersal. An equine species that became extinct at the same time also has been suggested as the plant's original dispersal agent because modern horses and other livestock will sometimes eat the fruit. However, a 2015 study indicated that Osage orange seeds are not effectively spread by horses or elephant species.
The fruit is not poisonous to humans or livestock, as shown by several studies. However, it is mostly inedible due to the extremely hard texture and taste. The seeds of the fruit are edible and it is sometimes torn apart by squirrels to get at the seeds, but few other native animals make use of it as a food source. This is unusual, as many large fleshy fruits serve the function of seed dispersal by means of its consumption by large animals.
M. pomifera prefers a deep and fertile soil, but it is able to adapt to be hardy over most of the contiguous United States, where it is used as a hedge plant. It must be regularly pruned to keep it in bounds, and the shoots of a single year will grow one to two metres (3–6 ft) long. A neglected hedge will soon become fruit-bearing. It is remarkably free from insect enemies and fungal diseases. A thornless male cultivar of the species exists and is vegetatively reproduced for ornamental use. M. pomifera is cultivated in Italy, former Yugoslavia, Romania, former USSR, and India.
Maclura pomifera contains an agglutinin, a lectin, that is highly specific toward the T-antigen. Osajin and pomiferin are flavonoid pigments present in the wood and fruit, comprising about 10% of the fruit's dry weight. The plant also contains the flavonol morin.
Primary components of fresh fruit include pectin (46.04%), resin (16.64%), fat (5.16%), and sugar (before hydrolysis, 4.46%). Alkaloids, glucosides, titratable acids, and vitamin C are also present. Moisture content of fresh fruits is about 80%.
The Osage orange is commonly used as a tree row windbreak in prairie states, which gives it one of its colloquial names, "hedge apple". It was one of the primary trees used in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "Great Plains Shelterbelt" WPA project, which was launched in 1934 as an ambitious plan to modify weather and prevent soil erosion in the Great Plains states, and by 1942 resulted in the planting of 30,233 shelterbelts containing 220 million trees that stretched for 18,600 miles (29,900 km). The sharp-thorned trees were also planted as cattle-deterring hedges before the introduction of barbed wire and afterward became an important source of fence posts. In 2001, its wood was used in the construction in Chestertown, Maryland of the Schooner Sultana, a replica of the HMS Sultana (1768).
The heavy, close-grained yellow-orange wood is very dense and is prized for tool handles, treenails, fence posts, and other applications requiring a strong dimensionally stable wood that withstands rot. Although its wood is commonly knotty and twisted, straight-grained Osage orange timber makes very good bows. In Arkansas, in the early 19th century, a good Osage bow was worth a horse and a blanket. Additionally, a yellow-orange dye can be extracted from the wood, which can be used as a substitute for fustic and aniline dyes. At present, florists use the fruits of M. pomifera for decorative purposes.
When dried, the wood has the highest BTU content of any commonly available North American wood, and burns long and hot. The wood should not be used in open fireplaces without a spark screen because the wood is very prone to popping and may send sparks and small embers several feet.
Unlike many woods, Osage orange wood is very durable in contact with the ground. Smaller logs make good fence posts, being both strong and durable. They are generally set up green because the dried wood is too hard to reliably accept the staples used to attach the fencing to the posts. Palmer and Fowler's Fieldbook of Natural History 2nd edition, rates Osage orange wood as being 2.5 times as hard as white oak (Quercus alba) and having twice the tensile strength.
Although Osage oranges are commonly believed to repel insects, there is insufficient evidence to support this. Research has shown that compounds extracted from the fruit, when concentrated, may repel insects. However, the naturally occurring concentrations of these compounds in the fruit are far too low to make the fruit an effective insect repellent. In 2004, the EPA insisted that a website selling M. pomifera fruits online remove any mention of their supposed pesticidal properties as false advertisements.
The Comanche tribe historically utilized a root/water infusion for eye conditions. Other folk uses of the plant include its use by Native Americans as a cancer treatment; in Bolivia, the plant's sap has been used to treat tooth pain, and the bark and leaves are used to treat uterine bleeding.
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