Of all our presidents, Thomas Jefferson clearly had the greenest thumb. The great statesman was a gardener extraordinaire. Monticello, Jefferson’s beautiful Virginia estate, was a horticultural wonderland rich with flowers, veggies and fruit trees of all sorts.
In 1803, he directed Meriwether Lewis, of Lewis and Clark fame, to “record the soil and face of the country” on his historic two-year expedition to explore the American West. It was a presidential mandate plant-loving Lewis was eager to perform. Lewis would ultimately discover and send to Jefferson more than 200 plant species. Osage Orange (Maclura pomifera) was one of the specimens sent to Jefferson.
Here are snippets from a Lewis letter to Jefferson regarding Osage Orange:
“I send you herewith enclosed, some slips of the Osage Orange. I obtained the cuttings form Mr. Peter Choteau, who resided the greater portion of his time for many years with the Osage nation. Mr. Choteau obtained the young plants from the great Osage village from an Indian of that nation. So much do the natives esteem the wood of this tree for the purpose of making bows, that they travel many hundreds of miles in quest of it.”
The wood of Osage Orange is extremely tough and durable, perfect for making bows and battle clubs. Hence, Osage Orange was given other common names, such as Bow wood and Bodark.
The tough and thorny Osage Orange also became a highly sought-after species for American farmers throughout much of the 19th century. When densely planted in fence rows, its tough and thorny branches create a virtually impenetrable “living fence.” Farmers often referred to Osage Orange fence rows as being: “Horse-high, bull strong and pig-tight.” Few farm animals, or humans, dared to cross a mature hedge row of thorny Osage Orange. Literally thousands of miles of Osage Orange hedge rows were planted, mostly across the mid-western farm belt. Hedge row planting mostly ended with the arrival of barb wire fencing in the 1880s. Today, the species is mostly unknown, even among gardeners.
Recently, I receive an email and photo of Osage Orange fruit from a gentleman living near Fayetteville, Arkansas. “What,” he wanted to know, “is the name of this alien-looking fruit?” His description of the fruit was hilarious. He several times referred to it as looking like a green brain. And indeed, the lobed and wrinkled surface of the fruit does bear an uncanny brain-like appearance. He was surprised to learn that fellow Arkansans often refer to Osage Orange as “Monkey Brains.”
Meriwether’s letter to Jefferson also contained the following:
“The Indians give an extravagant account of the orange-like odour of this fruit when it has obtained maturity. They state at this season they can always tell by the scent of the fruit when they arrive in the neighborhood of the tree, and usually take advantage of this season to obtain the wood. This fruit is the size of a grapefruit. An opinion prevails among the Osage, that the fruit is poisonous, tho’ they acknowledge that they have never tasted it.”
There is an on-going argument regarding the “poisonous” nature of the large fruit. Personally, I have no opinion on the matter. I know this, however. I would never bite into a fruit that appears so “brain-like” in appearance or one that goes by the name “Monkey Brains.”
There is a widely held belief among rural old timers that the large, orange-scented mature fruit has the ability to ward-off spiders, roaches and other insects when placed in closets, under beds and around the house. Again, I can’t confirm this. But I can say, with strong conviction, that Osage Orange is one of nature’s more interesting plant species.
Barry Fugatt is director of horticulture at the Tulsa Garden Center and Linnaeus Teaching Garden. He may be reached at 918-576-5152 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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