This is The Contrary Farmer, Gene Logsdon, recently writing about the Osage orange, Maclura pomifera, since childhood one of my favorite trees. We called its fruit “monkey balls,” though anatomically they resemble green cerebrums the size and shape of softballs. The trees formed a dense, thorny hedge between my elementary school and the neighbor to the north. An alternate folk name is “hedge apple.” Squirrels savor them. Little boys throw them. Their taste is bitter and the white sap they leak is sticky as a milkweed’s and contains 2,3,4,5—tetrahydroxystilbene, a natural insect repellant. Small, black, wiry hairs grow from the dimples on the surface of the fruit (“monkey balls?”).
The first half of the name derives from the early inhabitants of the Osage River Valley in Missouri. The Europeans didn’t what to make of what they called themselves, and mangled the word accordingly. The Oxford English Dictionary reports: “In the 19th cent. a large number of forms reflect attempts to reproduce the original Osage form. These include Huashasha, Huzaa, Huzzaw, Osawsee, Wahasha, Wasagè, Wasasa, Washasha, Wassashasha, Wassashsha, Wausashe, Wawsashe, Wazhazhe, and Wossoshe.” In the OED, I also found a wonderful citation from the April 15, 1910, issue of Science: “Osage orange endures hail better than any other of the broadleaved trees.” The “orange” is said to refer of the citric scent from the fruit, but I don’t remember smelling that.
Donald Culross Peattie, our poet laureate of flora, says in The Natural History of North American Trees that the Osage orange “is not a gracious tree; it sends out, unless carefully tended, long sprawling shoots that render it shapeless and unsightly. The foliage is very tardy, not appearing until mid-May in the latitude of Chicago, and the unattractive flowers [a little harsh: see female and male flowers], which bloom in June and July, are wind-pollinated and cause some hay fever.”
Among the 177 new species of plants identified by Meriwether Lewis during his journey west was the Osage orange. On March 26, 1804, near St. Louis, in a letter accompanying some cuttings from the tree, Lewis writes to Thomas Jefferson: “So much do the savages esteem the wood of this tree for the purpose of making their bows, that they travel many hundreds of miles in quest of it.” Earlier French explorers had already discovered the tree and named it bois-d’arc, “wood of the bow.” Later English speakers corrupted the name to “bodark.”
Several grim stories about the Osage orange date from the Civil War. On June 7, 1863, Confederate Maj. Gen. J.G. Walker attacked a Union force at Milliken’s Bend in Louisiana, hoping to relieve some of the pressure on Vicksburg. His attack was thwarted, in part, by a dense hedge of Osage orange around the village. In a report he wrote three days later, Walker said the Union soldiers were “posted behind the hedges, so as to fire through the openings. Upon reaching the hedges it was found utterly impracticable to pass them except through the few openings left for convenience by the planter. In doing this, the order of battle was necessarily broken, and the frequency with which this became necessary before reaching the first levee, behind which the enemy in superior force was found posted, exposed the brigade to a galling fire.”
Osage orange is credited with contributing to another Confederate defeat, this one on the outskirts of Franklin, Tenn., on Nov. 30, 1864. Part of a Union force under the command of Gen. John M. Schofield deployed in trenches dug behind a dense thicket of Osage orange. The southerners advanced across open farm fields. Many of the Union soldiers were armed not with muskets but newly issued repeating rifles. Joseph Nicholas Thompson of the 35th Alabama wrote in a letter:
“…a wall of fire rose that swept our ranks like hail. Many fell then, but on we went up to them, and when we got to their works we found that we could not get to them on account of a Osage orange hedge in front of their works, so thick that we could not pull it away or cut it. Poor Capt Steward the last I saw of him he was trying to cut a path through the Osage orange hedge with his sword. He fell with four bullets in him. I soon saw that nearly all of my company was killed or wounded.”