News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mike Lunsford

October 18, 2010

The Off Season: Knowing the difference between hedge apples and road apples…

TERRE HAUTE — I already knew one day last week what the people ahead of me were doing on the road before I ever had to slow down my truck to pass them. There they were, their trunk open, plastic grocery bags in hand, stooping beside their car, wandering in the ditches, picking up great, green, softball-sized fruits that had fallen from the sky like manna from heaven. 

The corn and soybeans may be virtually gone from the fields now, and some combines and grain trucks have been parked in the barn, but the hedge apple harvest is in full swing.

Hedge apples are under-appreciated items these days; the trees have been bulldozed and hacked and slashed and burned for years, primarily because they grow into gnarled and prickly and messy things, but decades ago, they were considered one of the most desirable trees a landowner could have. 

A long line of hedge apple trees once grew on land we now own, planted there in a great north-to-south row, I presume, to block the wind or pin in cattle, or because they grew quickly and snuffed out the weeds under them. For some reason, they were cut down years ago, their yellow-orange stumps gradually turning to gray as winter snow and summer sun bleached them dry. I sure wish they were still there, running along the curving road, holding the gravelly soil in place, and dropping their yellowed, waxy leaves in the fall.

The hedge apple — the Osage-Orange to some — was actually the very first specimen of tree to be sent back through St. Louis by Lewis and Clark as they began to explore the Louisiana Territory in 1804. The French had called it the bodark, or “bois d’arc” (meaning “wood of the bow”), and it soon became the bowwood to others. The tree was native to parts of Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Missouri, and long before farmers began to plant this cousin of the mulberry and the fig, which now grows in at least 47 states, Native Americans were making clubs and bows out of it.

Originally named after the native Osage Indians and the orange-like scent of their fruit, hedge apples (scientific name, Maclura pomifera) were among the most sought after trees one could find in the 19th and very early 20th centuries. According to an excellent piece published over a decade ago by Richard Jauron of Iowa State University’s Department of Horticulture, the hedge apple planted easily, grew anywhere, and didn’t die off when bugs gnawed on it. Jauron said, “…it was widely planted by Midwest farmers … as a living fence. When pruned into a hedge, it provided an impenetrable barrier to livestock.” Apparently, the need for hedge apple hedges began to die out when barbed wire was introduced.

My own children have good memories of hedge apples. Always the entrepreneurs, they decided to make their first fortune by setting up a card table near our mailbox one fall to sell hedge apples to tourists as they passed by. I think the pair thought unhulled black walnuts, bags of slag-heap coal, and a few buckeyes, all of which they found in the woods behind our house, would be big-ticket items, too, for they sat patiently by the road for a week, rocking their legs under their chairs and running to the house for bathroom breaks, all in hopes that the cash would come rolling in any time. It never did.

A few passers-by did stop — I think it says something about folks who at least look at things at kids’ roadside stands — and a number of them bought a hedge apple or two out of curiosity, but Ellen and Evan were soon introduced to the cold, hard facts of economic reality and quietly closed up shop to go into another line of work — leaf raking, I think.

Believe it or not, the hedge apple market may become lucrative again someday. Osage-orange wood is unbelievably dense (it produces as many BTUs as coal), and it can be used for fence posts and railroad ties because it rarely rots or gives in to termites; it still serves us well when burned in the fireplace or wood stove. Furniture and instrument makers still use hedge apple wood, the latter referring to Osage-Orange as a “tone” wood, good for making harps, even duck and goose calls. The finest bows in the world are still made from hedge apple, and a yellow dye can be extracted from it, as well.

However, most interest in hedge apples these days is directed toward the fruit. No, don’t expect hedge apple-flavored sports drinks out on the market anytime soon. Scientists are intrigued by something called tetrahydroxystilbene, a substance that has been proven to repel a whole host of household pests. Hedge apples just happen to be loaded with the stuff, and it has long been believed that leaving ripened hedge apples in basements and garages and crawl spaces helps keep the cockroaches, fleas, crickets, spiders (I found one about the size of a housecat in our garage last week), and those creepy box elder bugs at bay. That’s undoubtedly why our tourist friends were out on the hunt for their elusive green game last week.

Now, it is my understanding that hedge apples have, on occasion, also been incorrectly called “road apples,” primarily because country blacktops are where the brain-like fruits of the trees make their presence most obviously known, splattered and crushed and sometimes rolling along in one final glory toward the ditches. But as much as I’ve learned about hedge apples in the past few days as I wrote this story, it can’t compare to what I already know about road apples.

For the first, you may want a sturdy bag, operable warning flashers on your car, a few requisite spiders in your basement and, perhaps, in breezy conditions, a hard hat. For the second, a scoop shovel, a pair of boots and a strong back will be plenty.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by e-mail at hickory913@aol.com or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more of Mike’s stories at http://tribstar.com/mike_lunsford, and visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com to learn more about his books. Additional information for this column was taken from www.hedgeapple.com.

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