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Hedge applesFacts and Myths of Hedge Apples
by Dr. Barbara Ogg, Extension Educator

This article appeared in the October 2001 NEBLINE Newsletter

This time of year, hedge apples - the fruit from the Osage-orange tree - are being sold at farmer's markets, garden centers, and other locations. Many people have heard that these fruits can be used as an insect repellent, but the truth is that many people don't know much else about this unusual tree and its fruit.

The Tree and Its Fruit:

Osage-Orange Tree - Click on Image for Larger ViewThe Osage-orange is a small to medium-sized tree, having a short trunk and a rounded or irregular crown. The twigs are buff to orange-brown and are armed with one-half inch long spines. The stems exude a milky sap when cut. The Osage-orange is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers are produced on separate trees. The small, green flowers appear in May or June. Female trees produce 3-to 5-inch diameter fruit which ripen in September or October and fall to the ground.

Native Habitat and Current Distribution:

The Osage-orange is native to a small area in eastern Texas, southeastern Oklahoma, and southwestern Arkansas. This region is the home of the Osage Indians which gives the tree its common name. Settlers found that the Osage-orange transplanted easily, tolerated poor soils, extreme heat, and strong winds and had no serious insect or disease problems. It was widely planted in the Midwest as a living fence because, when pruned into a hedge, it provided an impenetrable barrier to livestock. The development of barbed wire curtailed its widespread planting, but many Osage-orange trees can still be found in fence rows.

Osage-orange fence post - Click on Image for Larger viewUses of the Osage-Orange:

The wood is extremely hard, heavy, durable and shrinks or swells little compared to the wood of other trees. The wood is used for fence posts, treenails, furniture, and archery bows. In fact, many archers consider the wood of the Osage-orange to be the world's finest wood for bows. Another common name for this tree, bodark, is from the French bios d'arc meaning "bow wood." This tree also produces a bright yellow dye which can be extracted from the wood.

The fruit of the Osage-orange is a nuisance in the home landscape and has little value. Hedge apples are not an important source of food for wildlife as most birds and animals find the fruit unpalatable. The thorny trees do provide nesting and cover for wildlife.

The belief about the use of hedge apples for insect control is widespread and persistent. it is claimed that placing hedge apples around the foundation or inside the basement will repel or control insects. A few years ago, Iowa State University toxicologists extracted compounds from hedge apples. When concentrated, these compounds were found to repel insects.

Scientists also found that natural concentrations of these compounds in the fruit were too low to be an effective repellent. So, don't be fooled into spending much to use hedge apples as an insect repellent.

If you decide to pick hedge apples to check out the repellency yourself or to use the fruit as a fall decoration, it would be wise to wear gloves. The milky juice present in the stems and fruit of the Osage-orange can irritate the skin.

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