What is an Osage orange?

Osage orange fruits can be effective in repelling cockroaches.

Osage oranges are members of the berry family, which means they are not true oranges. The fruit these trees produce looks like an orange, especially from a distance, but it is not edible. Although their fruits cannot be eaten, Osage orange trees have many uses and can be found throughout the southern and midwestern United States. Some garden supply stores sell Osage seedlings for people who want to plant these distinctive ornamental trees.

Osage oranges are native to Texas and Arkansas.

The Osage orange is apparently native to Texas and Arkansas, where Native Americans cut down the trees for centuries for their useful wood. The wood of this tree is extremely grainy and yellowish to orange in color. The narrow texture and straight growth habit make the wood very useful for things like bows, poles, and musical instruments, among other applications. In fact, the French referred to the Osage orange as bois d’arc in a reference to its historical use as a bowwood, and you sometimes hear Osages called “bodarcs” in a corruption of the original French.

These trees are spiny and deciduous, meaning they lose their leaves in the colder winter months. The fruits they produce are large and very wrinkled, which reminds some people of the brain. Because the fruit lasts after the leaves fall, you can spot an Osage orange in fall from a distance, thanks to the large, brightly colored fruit. When split open, the fruit is pulpy, thick, and slimy, making it downright unpleasant for all but the most desperate squirrels. The strange appearance of the fruit has inspired nicknames such as Brain Fruit, Monkey Ball, and Monkey Brain.

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One of the main historical uses of the Osage orange was in fencing and livestock control. If a row of trees is planted close together and well pruned, they will form an impenetrable hedge that works as a very effective fence. This usage gave the tree alternative names such as “living apple” and “living fence ball”. Maclura pomifera, as it is formally known, is still used that way and is also a very effective privacy fence, as you can imagine.

Some people believe that the fruits of the Osage orange can repel insects. Studies with the fruit have not revealed this, although some aromatic compounds in the fruit may be effective in repelling cockroaches. Although the fruits are not effective insect repellants, some people use them in interior decoration anyway, because the fruits look so weird and interesting.

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