Curiosity: What Are Hedge Apples?

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In Benalla, Victoria, a knowledgeable local horticulturist advised Angie Hamilton and Rupert de Crespigny that the unusual trees on their property were Hedge Apples (Maclura pomifera). After his advice that the trees were excellent for the skin, the couple recently commercialised their find into a unique, niche business based on the plants’ unique seed oils.

So what exactly are Hedge Apples?

It turns out they are species with a tremendously rich history and a unique ecology in their native habitat of North America. Also known as the Osage Orange, they are related to Mulberries (Moraceae) and derive their name from the Osage Native Americans. The trees produce wood that is highly-resistant to rot and makes excellent posts and timber with long-lasting durability, even being used to make wagon wheels and mine shaft timbers.

The wood has a beautiful deep orange hue and Native Americans searched far and wide for the wood to form bows which were strong, flexible and long-lasting. The wood and seeds are rich in pomiferin, a type of isoflavone that makes the wood useful as an insect repellent, antimicrobial and potentially with some anti-cancer properties.

As the Benalla couple attest, the plant’s oil is where the magic lies – its seeds are very high in both linoleic and oleic acids which have excellent wound-healing and skin hydration properties, albeit in tiny amounts. “It takes more than 100 kilograms of Hedge Apples to produce 200 millilitres of oil, but to exclusively produce such pure magic in Australia is worth the effort”, explained Rupert.

Osage Oranges in Early America

In 1804, the explorer William Dunbar travelled along the Mississippi River and sent cuttings to President Jefferson. Professor Jonathan Turner, who taught biology at Illinois College, also brought cuttings to the northern states. John Wright, editor of the publication ‘The Prairie Farmer’, championed the species as an excellent living fence due to its one-inch thorns and dense habit.

By the late 1840’s, Professor Turner believed that Osage Orange was the best available fencing material, describing it as “horse high, bull strong and pig tight” and it served as a “hedge” fence long before the invention of barbed wire.

By the 1850’s Osage Orange hedges made the fencing of entire farms possible. The French found the Osage Indians making bows from the wood and called it Bois d’Arc (meaning wood of the bow), which also gave rise to the common names Bodark and Bodarc. The species itself is named after William Maclure, a geologist, in his honour.

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The story ‘Liquid gold found on Benalla trees’ first appeared on Stock & Land.

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