My Thanksgiving dinner table setting always includes a colorful centerpiece incorporating not only multihued gourds but also vivid green Osage oranges.
Osage oranges make a beautiful stacked pyramid complemented by a few equally green cymbidium orchid blossoms tucked into the nooks. Any way you display them, they add grace and sophistication to home décor.
I used to collect mine from the historic row at the Missouri Botanical Garden, but in recent years, I’ve scavenged them wherever I can.
If you don’t have your own tree, fruits are often available at local farmers markets or from online vendors. Also, a tree in Compton Heights drops its aromatic orbs into the gutter, and another occupies a utility right-of-way in nearby Wildwood, where I gather them without guilt. Worth the hunt, these amazing fruits provide visual delight, a soft citrus fragrance and a delightfully chartreuse, warty skin.
About the size of a grapefruit, these nubby, slightly sticky green balls come from a tree named Maclura, in the mulberry family. Called bois d’arc by the French and bodark or bow-wood by English speakers, its wood once was valued by Native Americans for making bows and other weapons.
Originally found farther south, along the rivers of Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas, plants were brought north by tribes who appreciated their qualities. The first plants sent to Thomas Jefferson by Lewis and Clark, they were found by the famed explorers growing in Pierre Chouteau’s garden near the St. Louis waterfront. Chouteau admired them in a village of Osages, collected them and brought them home for his own garden.
In that era, the tree’s extremely hard wood well suited it for fence posts and railroad ties. That same rich golden, durable wood also made beautiful bowls, plates and candlesticks. Later settlers discovered they could prune the thorny trees into living hedges strong enough to contain hogs and bulls – hence the other common name of hedge-apple.
Macluras gain character as they become gnarly with age. Several venerable trees still thrive along the old driveway into the Missouri Botanical Garden. Dating from the time of Henry Shaw, these ancient trees can still be enjoyed in the Doris I. Schnuck Children’s Garden, west of the Climatron.
Several more trees of this vintage grow in nearby Tower Grove Park. Best enjoyed on large properties and estates where the dropping fruits pose no safety hazard, it ill serves as a courtyard tree for small gardens.
To guarantee my future supply of Osage oranges, I bought one for my West County garden years ago. Silly me – I planted it too close to the trail, and once established, low-hanging branches would swipe at me with sharp thorns. Remembering the pruning habits of the early sodbusters, I didn’t hesitate to take loppers to the most egregious branch and then tied the others high on a training post to keep them out of the way.
After Thanksgiving, we’ve always pitched the blackening fruits into the woods from the back deck. In more than a decade of tossing, I’ve had only one small tree emerge, but it is growing well and may help augment my future supply of tabletop decorations.
What I won’t know for a few more years is if my trees are male or female. Like ginkgoes, the trees each have individual sexes, and only the females bear fruit.
So, Osage oranges – use these unusual and beautiful fruits on the dinner table to make a great conversation starter and biology lesson all in one!