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When I was growing up, my family always spent Thanksgiving with my “grandmother” Gladys. She wasn’t actually my grandmother, but that’s not the point. The point was that she lived in Murphesboro, Tennessee (pronounced MUR-fis-burrrr-ah, Tin-EH-see) and I got to spend a day or three wandering 200 acres of farm land complete with cows, goats and hedge apples. I have vivid memories of my father and I using hedge apples for lawn bowling when we were bored and waiting for the turkey to cook. I have no other memories of the use of this strange plant.

What is a hedge apple you say?

Why let me tell you all about them!IMG_5847

Traveling through the Ozarks I was suddenly reminded of the hedge apples’ existence. They grow in farm pastures and along fence rows in this area. You can spot the gigantic fruit by its bright neon-green color and resemblance to a kind of shrunken brain. The fruit grows fullest towards late fall (i.e. Thanksgiving). The trees are short and kind of hedgy (ah, now you’re getting it), and the wood is dark and hard. The species ranges from Arkansas, through Missouri, and into Tennessee and the surrounding areas. The hedge apple is also known as the Osage orange, though it tastes NOTHING LIKE AN ORANGE AT ALL, OH GOD DON’T. It’s also known as Bois D’Arc, pronounced Bodark, tree, from the French for “bow wood.”

The thing I like best about the hedge apple is that the apples themselves are so weird looking and so big and gaudy, but TOTALLY USELESS. Not even animals eat them. They taste like chemicals. Research shows that not even bugs are interested in them. They are literally only good for lawn bowling. The interesting thing about this is that they contain seeds, which any plant person knows are meant to be distributed by animals. So the theory is that some extinct species, be it Giant Sloth or Mammoth or Mastodon, or Gomphothere (I’m not making this up) used to eat the things, but now they aren’t around to do it anymore. It’s literally a relic of another time.

The other interesting thing is that despite its useless, gaudy fruit, the wood of the “bow wood” tree is very useful. In fact, Native American tribes like the Comanches were known to travel hundreds of miles to acquire the dense, close-grained, flexible, strong wood from the Bois D’arc tree to use in making hunting bows. It was also prized among pioneers for tool handles and fence posts because it withstood rot. Best yet, when dried, it has the highest BTU content of any North American wood, so it burns long and hot.

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Therefore, the ONLY reason it still exists is because man has cultivated it into farm “hedges” and windbreaks. That’s rare among natural things, that man actually helped a species survive rather than harmed it.

So, now you know about hedge apples/Osage oranges/bodarks and how weird and backward they are. And you can spot them in the Ozarks and bowl with them. Or make a bow and arrows, I guess. Your choice.