If you’ve spent any significant amount of time in North Texas in fall and winter, you’ve likely encountered a bizarre, unappetizing-looking fruit that can best be described as resembling a green, grapefruit-size brain. Having grown up just outside Dallas, I have vivid childhood memories of fields practically covered in these strange spheres, rotting in the dirt by the dozens, untouched by animals and humans alike. We always called them “crab apples,” but I learned this is a baffling misnomer when, five minutes into a conversation with Mike Arnold, professor of landscape horticulture in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, it became clear that we were talking about two distinctly different fruits.
Maclura pomifera is known widely by a few names: the Osage orange, the hedge apple, or the horse apple, though it is neither an orange nor an apple and is more closely related to the mulberry. A Reddit thread asking posters what they call the fruit somewhat vindicated my childhood memory—several respondents said “crab apple,” while others said “monkey brains” due to the brainlike texture. The Osage orange has also been called mock orange, bodark, or bowwood. More importantly, my childhood memory of the brainlike apples left to rot on the ground en masse was vindicated by my conversations with experts, who explained to me that the signature product of the Osage orange tree, native to central and northeast Texas, is more or less useless—inedible to humans and largely spurned by wildlife.
“The fruit generally would be seen as a liability in a landscape setting, either falling on people or just creating a mess,” Arnold explained, once we’d clarified exactly which fruit was being discussed. “Some people claim that they have insect-repellent properties.” A 2006 study found that a compound in the fruit “shows excellent promise” in keeping mosquitos away; Martha Stewart is also a fan.
Barney Lipscomb, director of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT) Press and Library, told me one would be “unlucky” to wind up with a female (fruit-producing) Osage orange, which, beyond some recreational uses, is more hazardous than helpful. “With kids, I think those horse apples have been thrown around quite a bit—thrown at each other,” he said. “They’re almost so big that horses can’t really bite them. In some cases there is veterinary evidence that horses have choked on them and have died as a result.” No one I spoke to could tell me what it tastes like, because no one would dare eat it—though if you’re feeling adventurous, you can apparently fry the seeds for an unconventional snack.
But this unsightly fruit wasn’t always so undesirable, and the Osage orange has a rich, productive history in Texas and beyond. Lipscomb said that the unusually large fruit is a remnant of prehistoric times, once eaten by massive, now-extinct animals like the woolly mammoth, whose size was a better fit for the horse apple than that of the modern-day horse. (Large, Ice Age sloths feasted on the seeds as well.) The seeds were likely spread by these creatures; later on, the trees would be intentionally propagated by humans. Indigenous to central and northeast Texas, southeast Oklahoma, and southwest Arkansas, the Osage orange now grows in the Midwest, even as far afield as Illinois. And it has spread throughout Texas, popping up in the central, southern, and far west regions of the state.
The real magic of the tree is found in the properties of its wood, which is unusually hard, durable, and resistant to rot. Native Americans belonging to the Osage Nation used this wood to make bows and traded the wood to other tribes, according to Andrea Hunter, tribal historic preservation officer for the Osage Nation, though she noted the tribe no longer makes wooden bows. The wood’s durability and flexibility allows it to bend and absorb shock without breaking, making it ideal for bow making. This led French explorers to dub the tree the bois d’arc, meaning “wood of the bow” (and, of course, English speakers dubbed it the Osage orange after the tribe that famously put it to use).
Having discovered the remarkable nature of this tough, weather-resistant wood, settlers found their own uses throughout the 1800s, crafting the stuff into wagon wheels, railroad ties, grave markers, county boundary markers, and more. According to A Brief History of the Bois D’Arc Tree by Texas historian James H. Conrad, some bankers in Central Texas wouldn’t loan money for a house being built unless Osage orange was used. Some Texas cities, including Dallas, even experimented with using Osage orange bricks to pave their streets (this experiment was abandoned after the bricks kept getting washed away by heavy rains).
But the Osage orange is perhaps best known for its use as a hedgerow fence before the invention of barbed wire in the 1870s. “The trees have an interesting branching pattern and they also have thorns, so it was literally a hedge once they were planted in a row—they became a way to fence in your property,” said Lipscomb, who added that according to some sources, the inventor of barbed wire, Illinois farmer Joseph Glidden, was inspired by the tree’s thorny branches.
It was the tree’s potential as a living hedge that made the Osage orange a hot commodity in the nineteenth century, and a valued export of Texas—the fruit and its seeds were gathered and sold across the Midwest, with an 1875 article in the Denison News calling the Osage orange trade “an important branch of industry.” Even after the invention of barbed wire, Osage orange wood would continue to be a popular choice for fence-post construction, since it was unusually impervious to weather and insects.
Surprisingly enough, though the tree’s practical usage is now mostly defunct, the Osage orange remains beloved in swathes of its native Texas. Many Texas cities feature a Bois d’Arc Street; a Bois d’Arc Lake is located northeast of Bonham, in North Texas. Then there’s the northeast Texas town of Commerce, which is officially designated the Bois d’Arc Capital of Texas, as it’s located in the center of the geographical swath where the tree is native. Every September, the town hosts a Bois d’Arc Bash to celebrate the tree and its place in the town. The festival’s founder, Fred Tarpley, was quoted in a 1992 issue of BRIT’s newsletter explaining the town’s unique ties to the tree: “The very foundation of Commerce rests on bois d’arc,” he said, “since older buildings stand on blocks cut from of bois d’arc trees.”
And beyond the nostalgic value, Lipscomb told me, there’s something to be said simply for the Osage orange’s aesthetic qualities. “I think a lot of people love the look and feel of the tree,” he says. “It’s kind of like a beautiful mesquite tree—they have ambience, they have character, they have style, and wonderful bois d’arc trees are in that same category. They just look cool. They have beautiful bark, they branch beautifully, and they live to be a long, old age.” The average lifespan of these trees ranges from 75 to 100 years, though their maximum lifespan is estimated to exceed 300 years.
So there you have it—enjoy this tree for its beauty, its distinct Texanness, and its potential for weapon, wheel, and fence making. When the female trees shed their useless, brainy fruits, leave them alone, or do as Martha Stewart would and test their potential insect-repellent properties (just keep them away from horses).