A Bushel of Hedgeballs

We were gliding along a dirt road east of Fairfield, trolling for mountain plovers, when I spotted a number of unlikely objects on the grassy shoulder. I recognized them instantly, though I don’t remember having seen them before: Osage oranges, hedgeballs, Indiana brains, Maclura pomifera fruit. They were strewn along the roadside for yards, under a row of  little deciduous trees.
The trees didn’t look like much: short, scruffy, a bit thorny, nearly bald. They matched the rest of the landscape in that; in late November, everything looks a little worn and tired, even the milky winter light. The fruit on the ground was a startling contrast. Each was a bit bigger than a softball, densely textured in little geometric fissures, bright limey-chartreuse with some tinges of yellow. When I picked up three, they were slightly sticky, heavy, and had a mild citrus scent with just a hint of sour latex. The stickiness was odd, but I found them pleasant to handle.
I wish now that I’d picked up a few more — the late December rains put me off the notion of returning for seconds — as I’d like to open one and I find the pair we kept just too nifty to destroy. They haven’t rotted in a month and a half, though I think they’re a bit softer, and the scent is the same. I put them in a bowl on the coffeetable, mostly for their “What’s that??” value.
In another era, I might have put them in a closet. They’re supposed to have some value as an insect repellent. They’re notorious for having little use otherwise; “not worth a bushel of hedgeballs” is one of those Midwesternisms that William Least Heat-Moon quotes in his chapter on the tree in PrairyErth. Some small  animals will chew through the pulpy fruit to get at the seeds, but nothing seemed to have been interested in the lot I saw lying unmolested in the field.  Herein lies a puzzle.
Plants need not only pollinators but seed dispersal agents. As with their pollen, they can use wind (thistles, maples, cattails) but many use animals, by attaching burrs to our hides or inviting burial or by hitching a ride through our digestive tracts. But animals that chew up the seeds rather than, say, burying or excreting them whole are working against the plants’ agenda.
There are various accounts of animals’ eating Osage orange. Some horses will eat it, though it’s accused of choking cattle who try. All that pulp, so biologically expensive to make — what’s it for?
Connie Barlow, in The Ghosts of Evolution, advances a pretty notion that accounts for Osage orange’s historically limited distribution, among other things. She proposes that it’s among the North American plants whose seed dispersers, our missing megafauna, are extinct.
North America used to have horses, long before Europeans brought them back. In fact, the line started here. We — well before there was “we” — had elephants and rhinos, or something like them, and all manner of super-hyenas and saber-toothed wotses and outsized thingatheriums. Some of them were equipped to bolt Osage oranges (and  avocados, and pawpaws) and leave whole seeds in their dung, far from the parent plant. Absolutely ideal.
When they died out, the plants that had evolved with them found themselves in reduced circumstances, their former broad estates shrunk to  remnant dooryards. Osage orange was a hot trade item among native Americans because it made excellent bows (it’s also called bois d’arc, or bowdark) and clubs — its wood is fantastically tough and resilient, good even for paving blocks — and it grew only in a small part of the southern Midwest.
The live tree has a use that regained it some of its former range, once Europeans arrived. It makes a good hedge, “pig-tight, horse-high, bull-strong,” that served as fencing when farming made enclosure desirable, in places without enough forest for fence rails or stones for walls. Before barbed wire, it was the best and cheapest barrier available, and it thrives far north and west of its pre- European range — in Indiana, for example. And, as a souvenir of someone’s Midwestern roots I guess, in Solano County, California. In none of these places have I heard it called invasive; it spreads, but slowly.
I don’t think we’ll find it a culinary treat; Barlow reports that it’s edible, tasting slightly of air freshener. But it’s amusing to think of ourselves as a functional replacement for the mastodon and ground sloth.

Comments are closed.