Monday, October 27, 2014

Nature Walking

 We're pleased these days to get to see Dominic a few days a week.  He got a job at a hospital in Omaha that works 12 hour shifts half the week (or something like that), so he's been staying in town on work days and coming home to spend time with us on most of his off days.  This is a wonderful thing.  Not only does he serve as a role model and playmate for the children, but he mows lawns and fixes things around this old place -- and gets home cooked meals in return!

I'm not quite ready for the full reveal, but Dominic, Dan, and the kiddos are currently working on a big project that's been taking up a lot of our time... I'll post on that as soon as it's finished!  Dominic is here today and spent a good part of the morning on the big project, as well as mowing lawns, but he took a break from chores to join us on a nature walk.  It made it a little special for us having one of the "big kids" along! 

There's number 5 son, Dominic, here, down the lane from our house, Can you see that little white blob back in the trees over his right shoulder?  That's one of our few neighbors -- we think of them as the "cow people," as they're one of the few people in this neck of the woods that raises cattle. Unlike Colorado, where cattle were common, the fertile soil here yields better profit utilized for corn and soy beans than beef.
Anna looking out over the gully-wash of one of the creeks nearby.  It's looking very Octobery, isn't it?
Noting the old cow path here to the right of the permanently-windblown tree.  See how deeply they've worn the soil down?  Likely cows have been taking this way home for a very long time!
Gabe noting that these are not candy corns (Daggonit; it looked for just a minute there....), but, no, they're real corn kernels spilled on the side of the road when the harvesters came through the other day, giving the fields their autumn buzz cut.
Spied along a picturesque stretch of meadow.  Can you see it?  An old wagon wheel and gate down an embankment along a barbed wire fence, with no house in sight and no apparent reason for its being there. We wondered if there were a house here a long time past.  Not a sign of it now, though.
The children with their nature notebooks -- watching as...
... Dominic trespasses into our neighbor's pasture to snitch a hedge apple.
And more hedge apples down the road a piece (this time from roadside outside of a cemetery fence), thus "legally obtained" hedge apples...
Everyone jotting down the very interesting fact that hedge apples do, indeed, float.  (Though I didn't manage to get a picture of Dominic carrying out that experiment in the pond along the way.)

And now.... 

Some information on the tree and its fruit:

The yellowish green fruit are usually referred to as "hedge apples," or "Osage oranges," and the trees, themselves, are known as known as Osage Orange trees "bois d'arc," and bowwood.  For the record, the official, scientific name of the tree is Maclura pomifera, but for simplicity's sake (and because Maclura pomifera is such a mouthful), we'll call it the "Osage-orange."

Osage what?

The Osage-orange, doesn't produce orange fruit (it's bright green) and isn't related to
orange trees, but is a member of the mulberry (Moraceae) family.  It's a  relatively small tree, growing only to 30 to 40 feet, though occasionally as tall as 50 to 60 feet. With its short trunk and full crown, it would be a great little climbing tree -- if it weren't for the 1/2-inch (or longer) stickery spines scattered throughout its twigs. (YOUCH!) The stems exude a milky sap that, when cut, can irritate the skin, as well -- so, seriously;  don't climb these trees!. The Osage-orange is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers are produced on separate trees. The small, green flowers that show up in May or June aren't impressive, though, and might easily be missed in the newly budding leaves. The female trees produce 3- to 5- inch-diameter fruit which ripen in September or October and fall to the ground -- though larger fruits are sometimes found.  (Around here we often find them  8' to 10'  in diameter -- and larger!) 


Native to a small area in eastern Texas, southeastern Oklahoma, and southwestern Arkansas, the tree gets its name from the Osage Indian tribe, also native to this region. I expect the Indians valued the tree because their extremely hardy, heavy, and durable wood made excellent bows.  To this day, the Osage orange tree is prized for this quality among archers, but, the white settlers that moved into the area in the mid eighteenth century found them useful for many other purposes, as well.  Tough and durable,  the Osage orange transplants easily, and tolerates poor soils, extreme heat, and strong winds. It also has no serious insect or disease problems. When pruned into a hedge, the trees provided an impenetrable barrier to livestock.  Early midwestern farmers, settling from Texas and up through Iowa and Nebraska, utilized them as living fences, but with the introduction of barbed wire, they were no longer necessary and many of the original hedges have since been destroyed or died. Fortunately, though, some of the original trees can still be found in sections of fence rows in southern Iowa, and the random Osage orange may be found throughout the midwestern states where they've become naturlized in pastures and ravines.  

Quirky Uses

Interestingly, other than the use of the wood of the Osage orange tree for making bows, furniture, fence posts, and the like, a bright yellow dye can be extracted from the wood (something to remember for natural egg dyes come Easter!)  We've also found that the yellow-green "brains" (the fruit) is useful for repelling spiders, ants, and cockroaches.  Science won't sign on to the fact of this, claiming that the chemicals in hedge apples haven't been proven to repel spiders and any evidence of its successful use as a natural pest deterrent is "anecdotal."  But we can verify the anecdotal evidence, ourselves.  Placed around our porches, around the base of our house, and in windowsills where ants have been a problem, we've definitely noticed a reduction in creepy-crawlies.  Who cares what the scientist say, right? Whatever works, works! 

So, we already use hedge apples at our house to repel insects, and the possibility hangs out there of using the tree sap for dying Easter eggs, and the wood for making bows or fence posts -- but the truth of the matter is that most anyone who comes across hedge apples (our kids, anyway!) really uses them for this:

 ...funky little green soccer balls.

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