When Storm Sandy took down the majestic, centuries-old Osage orange tree in Druid Hill Park recently, everyone wanted to know more about Maclura pomifera.
The tree’s greenish yellow, softball-sized, brain-patterned fruit in particular, intrigued the Brew’s editors, who asked me if they – or any other part of this species – might be edible.
“The squirrels certainly enjoy them,” I replied, having often seen the striking fruit peeled, pulled apart and strewn across lawns along Stony Run.
As the Brew’s resident urban forager (I’m just back from a year in Germany on sabbatical) it fell to me to actually tackle this question.
My short answer, after much slimy and sticky research: yes, the seeds are edible but harvesting them is a nightmare. Unless this recession gets a heck of a lot worse, I don’t see large numbers of Baltimoreans fighting the squirrels for Osage orange seeds.
The tree’s common name may reference oranges, but its Latin name likens it to apples. The Maclura comes from Scottish-born geologist William Maclure (1763-1840) while pomifera means “bearing apples.”
Variously called hedge-apple, horse-apple, or monkey fruit, these seed-filled “holiday balls” are like nothing else you’ve ever seen or tried to eat. They are not, in fact, related to oranges or apples but, rather, to the mulberry family (Moraceae).
The tree is well-known for producing excellent wood for making bows and for serving as a “living fence” for early settlers. But much less is known about its potential as fodder for us human foragers.
There’s Osage orange growing elsewhere in Druid Hill Park (including one that’s a Maryland Champion) and in parks and private lots all over town. As a tribute to this great tree’s longevity, particularity and memory, I decided to check it out.
Initial research showed that although the fruit is inedible, and one of the most anachronistic, their seeds are said to be delicious. (Osage orange has outlived the Pleistocene-era mastodons and mammoths believed to have eaten its fruit and aided in seed dispersal.)
Time to test it. I gathered a couple of these odd fruits, harvested the seeds, and roasted them as you would pumpkin seeds. If only the task was as simple as that last sentence.
First problem: the seeds are deeply embedded in a fruit pulp that is multi-layered, tightly packed and filled with sticky white latex. You must soak the cut fruit in water to loosen up the flesh.
Second problem, the latex quickly sticks to your fingers.
Third, it’s hard enough to squeeze out the seeds from the dense flesh, but it becomes worse as more latex comes out, making the process a gooey mess.
Finally, instead of the “up to 200” seeds each fruit is reputed to have, I was only able to produce perhaps 20 to 30 opal-colored kernels.
I had to use a strong household cleaner to scrub all the latex off my fingers. Ugh. Needless to say, to gut the second specimen, I used latex gloves!
It was time to roast the seeds. The first batch I seasoned with butter, salt and pepper. (I prepared some pumpkin and butternut squash seeds the same way and roasted them too, for comparison.)
The best of the three? Hands-down, the butternut squash, though everything just tasted like butter and salt.
I therefore roasted a second batch with just olive oil and salt.
This time the road-apple seeds tasted more like roasted sunflower seeds and were delicious, though rather precious at just 30 or so little kernels.
Honestly, I recommend roasting a seed-filled sunflower rather than struggling to get any seeds out of an Osage orange.
Unless, of course, you have lots of time on your hands, curiosity about anachronistic plants, don’t mind getting your hands dirty, and enjoy the whole foraging thing.
Horse Apples as Bug Repellent
This use for the Osage orange fruit may be apocryphal, but at least it doesn’t require tearing them apart. People have long believed that they repel spiders, crickets and other household insects.
Various studies have found a substance in Osage orange called elemol that is said to be effective against several species of mosquitoes, cockroaches, crickets, and ticks. This year, a patent was even awarded for an insect repellant using Osage orange.
I think I will now go collect a dozen or so to place in baskets in my basement. If the elemol in the Osage orange reduces the crickets and spiders that seem to come out from nowhere this time of year down there, it will have made this entire mis/adventure worthwhile.
Update From a Week Later
Osage orange hedge-apples don’t repel house crickets – they attract them! I have just cut several open to see if the sticky latex attracts and traps them too.
Will give you an update soon . . .