Sunday, October 27, 2013


In one of the last episodes of “Sex and the City,” the writers slipped a sardonic chuckle into an otherwise serious story. Momentous life decisions are made, a snowfall creates a magical city scene, a party queen falls to her death from an upper story window. Oops. 

The title of the episode: “Splat!”
And I have a large hand.
This is one of the many thoughts that passes through my mind as I approach the corner of Iroquois and Keystone Streets on a late October day. Warty chartreuse softballs line the road on both sides, but none survive where the wheel treads trail. Instead, roughly circular blots mark the asphalt. Splat!  If you are unlucky enough to intercept the hefty fruits as they drop from the tree, the sound on the car rooftop is more of a “Bang!”

All this useless beauty.
Rounding the corner to Wenner Street, I see that osage oranges have been neatly staged in cannonball-style pyramids all round the bend. Is this an artistic statement, I wonder each time I drive by?  Three days later, my question is answered. A cardboard sign reads, “FREE! 4 Spiders.” And another comical image enters my mind. But no, the helpful homeowner is not expecting expect giant arachnids to carry the fleshy balls home to their young. The fruits have a reputation—unearned as it turns out—for repelling spiders.

One by one, balls disappear from the piles, presumably to take their places under the beds of arachnophobes. A few sideliners are squished—by errant wheels, by curious kids, by squirrels. The once battle-ready order takes on the same disheveled look as the natural fruit-fall on the other side of the road. Apparently there is not much demand for osage oranges among local raccoons and deer. This makes the giant fruits something of an anomaly: they seem to have lost their function. Too big for most animals, osage oranges, also known as hedge apples, have been known to cause death among ruminants by lodging in the esophagus. The great majority of the fleshy fruits rot beneath the canopies of the trees from which they drop, which makes no sense. Why would a tree waste energy creating a pulpy fruit when it has nothing to gain? Other fruit-bearing trees have partners—birds, bats, deer, bear, or for that matter humans—that disperse their seeds and spread the species over large areas, keeping them fit and vigorous and adaptable. Why should the osage orange be an exception to this evolutionary rule?  
Osage orange flesh is unpalatable to most animals.
Ecologist Dan Janzen calls this “the riddle of the rotting fruit.” And he has a theory. Some eleven thousand years ago the great mammoths and mastodons disappeared from the Western hemisphere; whether they were hunted to extinction or victims of an abrupt change in climate is a matter of debate. There is evidence that many of the giants were forest browsers, rather than plains grazers, and so it is entirely possible that they are the key to the riddle or, as Connie Barlow puts it in the title of her book about this and other ecological curiosities, “the ghosts of evolution.” In their absence the fallen osage oranges are sometimes picked through by squirrels and made viable, but seldom does the tree species migrate far from the spot where the fruits first bounced onto the ground.
Big thorns make good fences.

There was a time when humans took over the role of dispersal agent by planting miles and miles of living fences to keep their livestock from roaming. Pruned to fence height, the osage orange tree sends up multiple suckers and becomes "horse high, bull-strong, and hog-tight" in four years. It is estimated that at the height of its popularity, a quarter million miles of osage orange hedge grew in this country. (1)

The late 19th century introduction of barbed wire put an end to this practice but vestiges of the living fences remain in areas that were once farmed, and continue to produce suckers long after the mother plants are gone. The wood is now prized for fence posts. Archers value it also, as they have for centuries. In the early 1800s a well-made osage orange bow was said to be worth a horse and a blanket, or a “comely young squaw” in trade. Tribal wars were fought for possession of lands with generous supplies of osage orange trees.
The curious rind of the osage orange
Useless pulp lies smashed on the road. Splat! Trees that once functioned as living fences are chopped down and made into dead fences. Strong curved bows of osage orange wood may conceivably have contributed to the extinction of the animals that once kept it strong. The osage orange saga, full of twists and ironies, continues, with handmade signs pleading with anonymous passersby to take these warty green balls and give them a function—under a bed, or along a basement wall, or anywhere. Just take them.
Centuries of history go by; a tree’s stock rises and falls. Tire treads mark the intersections of Iroquois and Keystone, of ancient mastodon and modern transportation.

Bales S. 2007. Natural Histories: Stories from the Tennessee Valley

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