The first question I ask of any plant is “Can I eat it?". But there are plenty of other fascinating stories waiting to be told. Take for instance the unruly-looking and inedible* Osage-orange (Maclura pomifera). Its closest regional relative is the mulberry (Morus sp.) but most of the Moraceae family is more tropical—figs and jackfruits, for example. Its softball-sized fruits are hard, dense, only vaguely resemble oranges, and aren’t related to them at all. It takes its common name from the Osage Nation, a tribe which used the tree for tools, clubs, and most importantly, bows. There are records of a well-made Osage-orange bow being worth a horse and blanket as an even trade, meaning the people controlling the supply of the trees could make quite a tidy living as, effectively, arms traders. There seem to have been multiple wars fought over the land where the trees grew, and the Osage Nation was known to send parties hundreds of miles to harvest from their favorite stands. Even the Blackfoot tribe in now Montana used bows of this wood, nearly 2000 miles from where it grew.
At the time of European colonization, the range of the Osage-orange was confined to river bottoms in a relatively small area of what became Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Why this is so is a subject of some speculation. Generally when a tree produces such a large fruit it is because some large critter loves to eat that fruit, and the seeds get dispersed when the odd few make it through the digestive tract unharmed and germinate. But nothing really seems to like the Osage-orange fruit. Squirrels will tear them apart to get to the seeds, but they grind the seeds to pulp and destroy them in the process. One theory is that animals now extinct on the continent were the primary distributor of the fruit, perhaps mastodons, early horse-like animals, or some sort of (I’m not kidding) giant sloth. With their decline, possibly due to overhunting, came the diminishing range of the tree, and it is possible it could have gone extinct without Native Americans propagating it for their uses.
Lewis and Clark sent some cuttings to President Jefferson as part of their first shipment of samples. They got them from a guy who said they came from an Osage Indian village, and the common name was a done deal--though they called them Osage-apples at first. European settlers had little to no use for longbows, but high on their wish list was fencing or hedges to ‘civilize’ the prairies. (It had been common practice in much of Europe to mark field boundaries with hedges, which can provide harvestable yields, contain livestock, reduce wind, and provide habitat for wildlife.) Osage-orange was found incredibly suitable to this task, because if densely planted it provided a fence “horse high, bull strong, and pig tight,” in the words of one early promoter. This is why many people from rural backgrounds, myself included, first learn this tree as the “Hedge-apple.” (As an aside, other plants brought from overseas to serve this purpose include buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) and multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), both of which have become destructive invasive species.)
Eventually the hedge fell out of fashion because of a fabulous new invention: barbed wire. Farmers decided they’d rather have dead fences than living ones, since time spent pruning is time not plowing. They were pleased I’m sure to learn that Osage-orange is one of the most fungal- and rot-resistant woods in the world, and immune to termites, giving farmers another incentive to keep the trees around for their value as fencepost material (above right). And after the Dustbowl, millions of the trees were planted in a 100-mile wide strip from North Dakota to Texas as part of FDR’s Great Plains Shelterbelt program, eventually run by the WPA. This program is to date the largest US government program aimed at tackling an environmental problem. Eventually the trees became established or reestablished in all of the lower 48 states.
You can still see remnant Osage-orange windbreaks marking field edges in the Chicagoland region and beyond. Some people recognize the altogether silly fruits, and occasionally remember hearing that people put them around the house to repel spiders back in The Before Time. Some folks still heat their homes with wood, and may know that it provides the highest BTU value of any wood in North America. But few people are aware of the role this one plant species has played in the history of this country, the many nations that came before it, and perhaps the continent before humans ever arrived.
Not a bad story for being inedible.
*There are reports you could go through a lot of effort to get the seeds out and eat them, with no ill effects, but to me “edible” means “worth eating.”