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Green Giants

September 25, 2014

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LET OTHERS HAVE their pumpkins and cornstalks. My favorite fall decoration presents itself quite literally at my feet starting in mid-September in several parks around the D.C. area, and indeed across the Great Plains states.

It’s known as an Osage orange. Otherwise known as a hedge apple. Otherwise known as “What on earth  is that!?” These fruit, for that’s what they are, have a slightly citrusy scent, which you can discern once you get past the notion of holding something bumpy, brain-like and chartreuse up to your nose.

The Osage orange tree was once planted in hedges across the Plains, hence the hedge apple name for the fruit. As for “Osage,” the hunters of the Osage Nation are said to have revered the tree for its hard but flexible wood for fashioning their bows. I, on the other hand, ignore the wood, which is after all still attached to the looming trees in Montrose  and Volta parks in Georgetown.

I gather the fruit, which fall to the ground with big thumps–the globes are about 5 inches across, sometimes larger–and simply line them up across my mantel. Or if I’m early enough to grab a whole bunch before kids start taking batting practice with them, I stack them in pyramids in two urns on my back terrace.

Use them indoors and you have to be careful: They do rot after a few weeks, turning black and, um, soft. But for a while each fall they lend otherworldly color to the dimming garden or the living room.

I’m clearly not the only person seduced by the odd brain-like globes. Kenise Miller, who seems to have catalogued her entire aesthetic and lifestyle on Pinterest (“Birds I Love,” “Homemade Protein Bars, “Light bulb ideas”–but wait, there’s more!), has gone nuts with them, showing the green alien beings in various configurations and pursuing the widely held idea that they repel insects (jury’s still out). And Carrie Siems of the Project Obsessed blog admits to getting carried away with the fruit, which her Halloween decorations confirm.

Also there are artificial fruit on the market. Williamsburg’s catalogue markets them, though theirs are on the small side. The Zimmerman Marketplace, based in Leola, Pennsylvania, also sells small artificial ones for $7.95 each.

But buying them would take some of the magic out of them, at least for me. I like walking the dog into the park and spying them on the ground and realizing fall is indeed here.

You can find Osage orange trees around the capital, in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, and a particularly gnarled example of Maclura pomifera sits adjacent to Lincoln’s Cottage, on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home, now known as the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Northwest Washington. Also, Alan Whittemore of the U.S. National Arboretum points to “a big old female at the top of Legume Hill” on the Arboretum grounds. And, he says, there’s one “behind the U-Haul place at US 1 and Greenbelt Road, too.” So not extremely rare, but not that common around here either.

There are male trees and female trees; both sexes bear flowers in spring, but the females sprout the multiple fruits, big balls of single-seeded drupelets (thank you, Wiki). And get this: Where there are no male trees present, the female trees will still produce fruit, but the “syncarps” will contain no seeds. Parthenogenesis, anyone?

Nancy McKeon



5 thoughts on “Green Giants

  1. zehra peynircioglu says:

    I was told there weren’t that many of them around…just in case people want to keep track, there’s a healthy one by the gardens on the corner of 45th and Warren Streets NW…Neighborhood squirrels know it well. Too bad I couldn’t figure out a way to upload the photo I took the other day!

    1. Nancy McKeon says:

      oh, zehra, thanks so much! maybe we’ll be able to update our system someday to accommodate all sorts of contributions.

  2. Nancy McKeon says:

    The truth-in-advertising guys have told those who sell the Osage oranges/hedge apples online to remove any claims of spider avoidance, but people insist it’s true!

    1. Brook Mowrey says:

      I remember these from my childhood…and you’re right—they’re perfect for throwing. I love the line-up of these on your mantel flanked by the finials!

  3. Anne Kisslinger says:

    When we were kids we called osage oranges mock oranges and my husband called them monkey brains. My mother-in- law swears they keep spiders away!

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