A Little Bit of Osage Knowledge

Where to start this tale?     

Photos courtesy of Mr. NYer

In a car.  Driving down Narrow Lane Road next to the Montgomery Country Club and seeing what seem to be … tennis balls? … moss-covered softballs? … hybrid softballs with neon green tennis ball covers?    

No! By Jove, they’re osage oranges, and they are all over the place. So that’s what those hedges are!   

My first encounter with an osage orange was in Staten Island.  Although I biked throughout the South Shore as a teenager, I must have skipped the osage season, because the first time I saw one it was sitting atop one of the lunch tables in the faculty room of  the high school in which I taught.    

A student had brought it in and stumped the science teacher, who brought it to the rest of us as a challenge.  Never one to resist, I examined the item carefully, noting its brilliant green color, convoluted  surface, and slightly citric smell.  Slicing it open revealed yellow pulp with tons of seeds inside.  It appeared to be a fruit. I was stumped.      

Next I called the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences and talked with Ed Johnson.  “I’m trying to identify what looks like a fruit,” I explained. It took Ed no time at all to tell me it was an osage orange and to advise against eating it.     

Ed explained a few more things about the osage orange.  It isn’t native  to the Island, nor is it usually found this far north. (It originates in Texas.) The reason it’s on Staten Island at all, he said, was that it was introduced by Frederick Law Olmsted.  And it could only be found in a few spots on the Island — most likely from a row of hedges on Seguine Avenue. I have a feeling Ed knew the specific trees.     

Mention of Olmsted’s name piqued my interest.  I knew he’d lived on Staten Island and that his farmhouse still stood–albeit enlarged and somewhat transformed–not far from where I lived.  Long interested in Island history, I had been encouraged by a college professor to apply for a grant to document the history that was still standing in photographs (and oh, I wish I’d followed through on that).      

Olmsted's Staten Island farmhouse as it appeared in 1924

My research included an interview with Staten Island historian and preservationist Loring McMillen in his office in the old court house in Richmondtown.  I asked about the Olmsted house and can still see him sigh, shake his head and advise me not to bother. “Yes it’s there,” he said, “but its in terrible shape … ” In residence then, according to McMillen, were Carleton Beil–a naturalist and cicada expert who learned at the feet of William T. Davis–and his wife.  McMillen shuddered when he leaned forward and told me they had refrigerators and old appliances on the porch.     

Having identified the osage orange, I was bitterly disappointed to find that, although she had framed the challenge as a contest,  my science colleague did not in fact offer a prize.  What kind of a contest doesn’t offer a prize?!     

Didn’t know about the Olmsted-Staten Island connection?  Olmsted was Yale-bound when he contracted an intense case of poison sumac that affected his vision (and you though poison ivy was bad). So, he knocked around for a few years, went to sea, that kind of stuff, and then he decided he wanted to pursue “scientific farming.” After not doing well in Connecticut, he bought a large farm on Staten Island in 1848, when he was 26 years old.  He called it the Tosomock Farm; later Erastus Wiman bought the land for development and named it Woods of Arden. As far as I know, the house still stands. For the next seven years, Olmsted practiced scientific management of crops, developed a tree nursery, and planted non-native species, including the osage orange.  He also managed to travel extensively through the South for the New York Daily Times and his writings on the conditions under  which both slaves and poor whites lived helped solidify northern anti-slavery opinion.  He left the farm upon his marriage to his sister-in-law (his brother had died), but they returned to it later in life and his son, Frederick Jr, was born there in 1870.   

Anyway, I hadn’t really thought much about osage oranges again until we began seeing them everywhere.  I asked Mr.  NYer to take some photos. He took a few  environmental shots (above) and then brought some specimens home for a still life.  I think they look like something offered for sale at Pottery Barn.    

As it turns out, a fair number of people do indeed bring these colorful fruit into their homes at this time of year, though not for decoration.  A folk belief holds that they repel spiders and insects.  I’ve even found a place online where you can buy them if you don’t happen to live in a place where they fall by the roadside.    

They are known by an array of names: hedgeapples, bois d’arc (the wood supposedly makes dandy bows), bodarks (an Americanization of the French one imagines), or horse-apple.     

Although not technically poisonous for humans, I have read that they are not really that tasty, except for the seeds. These are as easy to extract as cotton seeds from the boll, so don’t look for little snack packs any time soon.  Squirrels don’t seem to mind the effort though.  Horses and cattle sometimes munch on them, but unwisely.  They are a choking hazard.    

The trees from which they droop rather pendulously make fine hedgerows.  If you come on down to visit us in Montgomery, I can show you some.

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3 Responses

  1. Is that what they are? Wow! I just saw some today along the roadside in Plymouth Meeting, PA (not far from where I live in Norristown), and as I steered around the pile of them I thought, “Wow, I haven’t seen those since Staten Island.” So *that’s* what a horseapple is! I thought for sure it was something, well, different. 🙂

  2. Aha! That explains a lot.
    I didn’t know Olmstead had a Staten Island farm where he grew them and other non-natives. Maybe that’s why there are huge old osage orange trees in Central Park.

    In the 1990s I used commute across town on foot through Central Park. Each fall I saw a tiny old Asian woman collect a sack of the fruits. The squirrels gnawed at them and carried off hunks. I always wondered if they ate them.

  3. Well, after several days of bad weather, today dawned sunny and slightly cooler than the last few so I asked Jodi if she would accompany me on an Osage Orange Hunt down Seguine Avenue. Bit of background first…as you know we are short on venues for community theater here on Staten Island of late and Sea View Playwrights Theater just did a run of Midsummer Nights Dream which was excellent, however the place is infested with sprickets (little cave crickets). They hop all over the place, no biting but a general annoyance. Their nemisis being spiders and….yes, osage oranges! According to Google these bumpy globes can clear out a cricket infestation in no time !

    OK, so off we set, down Seguine Ave toward Lemon Creek. Sure enough, many many osage oranges were all along the road. We picked two bags full of the sticky orbs. Nice.

    Along the way we noticed an entrance to a beautiful property reminiscent of a Southern Plantation. In fact, it was the Seguine-Burke Plantation and Mansion built in 1838. It was given to the City of New York although the current owner, Mr. Burke, retains interest in it and actually lives there. We went in. It is a beautiful property, and the adventure began.

    We wandered into the yard, gathered up a few more oranges and suddenly a Doberman arrived to sniff us out. Slightly scary but he was a docile patroller and just followed us around. We found horse paddocks, a jumping ring and a horse and rider galloping about.
    Just about then we noticed two Staten Island belles surely in their 80’s all dolled up in their Sunday best right down to the hats and gloves so we strolled over to explain ourselves. They were quite cordial, knew about the Osage Oranges and even told us where else we might find them. We had a lovely little conversation until a be-tuxed butler came out to assure us that this was private property and a a tour was in progress and would we shush and pretty much….leave.

    We did exit the property and much to our chagrin we found a sign around the block with the history of the Mansion AND the fact that it was owned by the City of NY and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. Oooooh I wanted to go back and tell off that Lurch of a cheeky butler but suddenly a beautiful but anxious peacock gave chase and we had to quickly exit in our car. Another fine mess we got ourselves into !

    Maureen, thank you for giving us a memorable day in pursuit of the Osage ! We have 2 dozen of the sticky smelly things out in the yard. We plan to keep a few for our own homes and place the rest around the theater as the next production is going into rehearsal, Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

    As always, missing you and George

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