Don't let the name confuse you; Osage orange isn't your typical variety of citrus but a collective fruit originating in the south-central United States. It's a unique fruit resembling a green softball with a fascinating history.
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What is an Osage Orange?
An osage orange (Maclura pomifera) is a large fruit in the Moraceae (mulberry) family.
The fruit also goes by various names, including mock orange, hedge apple, horse apple, monkey brains, yellow-wood, crab apple, and monkey ball. It’s also known as bois d’arc in French, pronounced as bodark in North America.
Osage orange is a collective fruit comprising a dense cluster of smaller fruits. It is roughly spherical and has a bumpy exterior. And it contains a woody pulp with hundreds of tiny seeds enclosed in slimy husks.
Osage orange is the size of a grapefruit, measuring 3–6 inches (7.5-15 cm) in diameter.
It has a bitter taste with hints of cucumber flavor. The fruit also secretes a white milky sap (latex), making it unpalatable to many animals and humans. But the seeds are a favorite to squirrels, deer, and other small animals, and you can also toast and eat them as a snack.
Osage oranges grow on hardy, fast-maturing deciduous trees. Osage orange trees are dioecious, meaning that male or female flowers grow on separate plants, so you’ll only find fruits on female trees.
The History of Osage Oranges
Osage oranges boast an intriguing history dating back to the 19th century. The fruit is native to the Red River region from Arkansas to Texas and Oklahoma.
Osage orange trees also grew in some parts of Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia before European colonization.
Early historical records of Osage oranges reveal that Meriwether Lewis, an American explorer, wrote to President Jefferson in 1804 about his encounter with the fruit in the Osage nation. He also sent the President some osage orange cuttings and slips given to him by a local, Pierre Chouteau.
It’s believed that the Native Americans helped spread the fruit by trading its wood and high-quality bows made from the tree.
Professor Jonathan Turner of Illinois College introduced osage oranges in the north in the 1800s. He described fence posts made from osage orange trees as “horse high, hog tight, and bull strong.”
The Osage orange tree’s reputation grew in the mid-19th century before the invention of barbed wire, when settlers started using them as hedge fences. The trees’ sharp thorns, twisting branches, and resistance to pests and rot allowed the settlers to turn them into impenetrable hedgerows.
President Franklin Roosevelt also promoted the tree during his ‘Great Plains Shelterbelt’ project in 1934, aimed at preventing soil erosion and improving the weather.
Today, Osage oranges grow widely in the United States, mainly in the southern states. They’re also found in Canada (Ontario), the UK, Italy, and India.
Although not cultivated as an ornamental plant, osage orange trees are still used as a windbreak. In addition, the osage orange wood can be boiled to make a yellow dye. Some people also use the fruits as decoration, air fresheners, and bug repellants.
What Does an Osage Orange Taste Like?
A raw osage orange tastes bitter with a slight cucumber-like flavor.
But some people claim that the fruit becomes sweeter when fully ripened.
Due to its sticky sap and bitter taste, osage oranges are hardly cooked. However, the seeds are edible and taste like raw sunflower seeds. When toasted, osage orange seeds have a nutty flavor.
How to Tell When an Osage Orange is Ripe
Here are some tips to help you know when an osage orange is ripe:
|The fruits turn from pale green to bright green when ripe.
|Osage oranges become soft and mushy when overly ripe, especially after exposure to weather elements like rain and frost.
|A ripe osage orange will have a sweet citrusy, floral aroma that you can detect from a distance.
Are Osage Oranges and Regular Oranges Related?
No, osage oranges are entirely different from regular oranges. Here are the similarities and differences between the two fruits:
- Both fruits are spherical and have a floral, citrusy aroma.
- Osage oranges look like lime-colored oranges, but they’re not citrus fruits.
- Osage oranges belong to the Moraceae (mulberry) family, while oranges are in the Rutaceae family.
- Osage oranges are bitter and have a woody pulp, while regular oranges are sweet and juicy.
What Did Native Americans Use Osage Oranges For?
Native Americans highly esteemed osage orange trees mainly due to their yellow wood’s strength, durability, flexibility, and hardiness. The Osage Indian and Comanche tribes used osage wood to make high-quality archery bows, war clubs, and tomahawk handles.
And it was due to this that French explorers coined the name “bois d’arc” (meaning bow-wood), having observed the bow-making craft.
Osage Indians made rope and tannin (for leather) from the scaly bark on the Osage orange tree trunk. The Comanche also boiled the root to make a decoction (root tea) to treat sore eyes.
Later, European settlers used osage orange wood to make hubs and rims of wagon wheels since the wood had maximum load value. It is also flexible, so it can easily be twisted into the circle of wheel rims.
Osage orange wood was also used to make railroad ties and telegraph poles.
Cooking with Osage Oranges
Osage oranges have very little culinary application due to their unpleasant taste.
However, the seeds are edible and can be toasted into snacks. Still, removing the seeds from their slimy husks is tedious and challenging.
Here’s how to prepare osage oranges to obtain their seeds:
- Soak the ripe osage orange fruits in water until they soften.
- Alternatively, freeze the fruits and thaw the fruit when it become mushy.
- Using your fingers and thumb, remove the seeds.
- Clean the seeds well and leave them to dry.
You can now eat the seeds raw or toast them lightly.
Osage oranges do not feature in food recipes, but some people have claimed to use them as food additives. They freeze-dry the fruits and grate the flesh, adding it to herbal tea.
How to Store Osage Oranges
You can keep unripe osage oranges on the counter until they ripen. Then, after ripening, hang them separately upside down for a few days.
However, they’ll turn brown and rot after some time. So, the best way to store osage oranges is by freeze-drying them (raw or ripe). Frozen osage oranges will last for about six months.
Nutritional Benefits of Osage Oranges
Despite their unpalatability, osage oranges are nutrient-dense fruits (especially seeds). They contain antioxidant and antifungal compounds.
The compounds osajin and pomiferin are flavonoids with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-carcinogenic properties. Studies show that pomiferin has the potential to treat cancer since it acts in a similar way as chemotherapeutic drugs like vorinostat.
Tetrahydroxystilbene (TSG), another compound in osage oranges, has antifungal properties. Some people use the fruits to clear sinus passages, as a pain relief for back pain, and as a tincture for arthritis.
Osage orange seeds contain various nutrients, including protein, carbohydrates, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. These nutrients boost the immune system and improve the general functioning of body organs.
The oil extracted from osage orange has been shown to have tocopherols, which have antioxidant, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory properties. Hence, the seed oil is used to make pharmaceutical and cosmetic products since it improves skin health.
It’s also believed that the osage orange fruit was used during the Great Depression to treat skin ailments.
Where to Purchase Osage Oranges
You can purchase osage oranges from local farmers’ markets, online retailers, and fruit markets. The fruits are in season and readily available in the fall.
You’ll find osage orange trees along fences in many states where the trees are cultivated in the US.