Osage orange is a medium size deciduous tree easily recognized by its very thorny interlacing branches, an orange cast to the bark, and its large, distinctive fruits. Trees get 20-40 ft (6-12 m) tall with straight, short trunks up to 3 ft (1 m) in diameter, and rounded, irregular crowns. The bark is orange-brown with deep, irregular fissures. The stiff, slender branchlets bear stout thorns and are intertwined into almost impenetrable thickets. The deciduous leaves are 3-5 in (7-13 cm) long and 2-3 in (5-8 cm) wide, dark green, turning yellow in autumn. They are heart shaped at the base and taper to a long pointed tip. Osage oranges are dioecious and a tree produces either male or female flowers, and only female flowers produce fruit. The flowers are in dense, globe shaped hanging clusters about an inch (2.5 cm) in diameter. The fruits are a yellow-green wrinkled ball, like a warty orange, 4-6 in (10-15 cm) in diameter. Ripe fruits even smell like orange peel. The fruits often persist on the tree after the leaves have fallen. The fruits, like other members of the mulberry family, contain a milky juice, and the small seeds are imbedded in the pulp.
A handful of cultivars have been named including nearly thornless male varieties that are neither as lethal nor as messy as the wild form.
The original, natural range of osage orange (Maclura pomifera) was centered around the Red River Valley in eastern Texas, southwestern Arkansas, southeastern Oklahoma and northwestern Louisiana. However, the tree has been planted and become established over much of the U.S. and even in Ontario, Canada. They are especially common on the American Great Plains where they are seen in hedges, windbreaks and shelterbelts.
Osage orange is very easy to grow and withstands about anything nature can throw at it: Acidic or alkaline soils; high winds; extreme heat; drought … Light: Grow in full sun. Moisture: Osage orange can tolerate wet soils and dry soils. It is tolerant of drought. Hardiness: USDA Zones 4-9. Propagation: Osage orange can be rooted from fast growing stem tips in spring. Seeds can be removed from the fruits by maceration and sown in spring.
The osage orange flower clusters appear in spring.
By late summer the osage orange fruits are nearly mature
Before the invention of barbed wire in the 1880s, living hedges of osage orange planted close together were used to “fence” much of the American mid-west. The thorny bushes were pruned to create a barrier that horses would not jump over and cows would not push through. After barbed wire made hedge fences obsolete, poles of osage orange were used for fence posts. The bright orange wood is very heavy and very hard, and neither rot nor termites will bother it for decades. Not only that, osage orange fence posts sometimes take root and once again become “living fences.” Osage orange is still planted as a windbreak and in shelterbelts.
Osage Indians made (and others still do) bows from the strong, yet flexible wood. In fact, the common name "Bodark" is corrupted from the French "bois d'arc" meaning "bow wood." Lacking the skills to construct bows and arrows, young boys find the fruits make very effective grenades.
An extraction from the roots is used to make a bright yellow dye. The heavy dense wood makes excellent fire wood. Squirrels relish the seeds, making a big mess of the fruit as they extricate the little delicacies. People with great patience also eat the seeds which must first be picked out of the pulpy matrix and cleaned of their slimy husks. An old wives’ tale holds that the fruits repel unwanted insects around the home, but this has not been confirmed by younger wives.
The other 15 or so species of Maclura occur in eastern Asia, Australia or South America.
Osage orange trees can spread and become a real problem in pastures. The thorny branches make pruning a real challenge, and the thorns can even flatten tires. Fallen fruits can make quite a mess.