I was shopping with friends last weekend when we saw a basket full of bright green hedge apples for sale. These gnarly fruits come from the regionally native Osage orange tree or Maclura pomifera. The sign said “Natural insect repellant—50 cents each.”
My friends and I looked at each other and grinned. “We should bring in a truckload if they’re getting that much for them,” Judy said.
“My grandma always put them under the bed to keep the spiders away,” Byron said. “But I’m not sure if they really work.”
“They don’t,” I said.
“How do you know?” they chimed.
“My botanist friend at work told me.”
I also did a little Web search. According to the University of Minnesota Extension Service (see link below), the essential oil of Osage “oranges” is repellent to German cockroaches, but this “doesn’t explain why using whole, intact Osage orange fruits would control spiders and insects.”
Still, every fall, crates and baskets of them appear in local markets, which ask a price of 50 cents to a dollar apiece.
If they don’t repel insects, why do people buy them? Our ombudsman (and former state botanist), Tim Smith, supposes that it’s because these fragrant, sticky fruits appear about the same time spiders and other insects decline.
“It’s not hard to imagine that someone would collect hedge apples in the fall and place them in their house and see fewer insects and spiders,” Tim says. “But that would happen anyway as the colder fall and winter temperatures arrive, and heated houses provide a less humid environment.”
I think these big, impressive fruits are so appealing that people believe they must be good for something. They’re bright, textured and fragrant, and they look pretty arranged in a basket or bowl.
My coworker Jim Low agrees. “I think it’s just hard for people to accept the notion that something so cool and abundant is useless,” Jim says. “The desire for Osage oranges to be useful outweighs the evidence.”
But there is a critter that has the taste and time to shred the dense, gummy fruits for their seeds. If you’ve ever walked through an old field or scrubby woods in late fall, you’ve spotted a pile of sticky, bright-green fluff that marks the spot where an assiduous squirrel has shredded a hedge apple and devoured its seeds.
I don’t blame you for being tempted by these fragrant, unusual-looking fruits, too. But instead of spending good money on them, carry a basket on your next jaunt in the woods and collect a few to adorn your table or entryway.
If you have insect problems, consult the MU Extension website (listed below) for proven control tips.