Maclura pomifera (Osage Orange) - Study

hemmy

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I grew up around this tree and was delighted to see it used in bonsai by the late Jim Lewis (@jk_lewis). As soon as we moved to a place where I had space, I started seeds (in 2016) from trees around my childhood home. Since we had so few threads on this great North American tree, I had planned on creating a thread once I had some trees and knowledge that were worthy of creating a post. Unfortunately, I'm far from that point. But I'm losing my growing space so I have to get rid of the majority of these trees (I'll put a link to separate thread for the trees that are being sold at the LA Community Swap Meet in Oct.). Since I was already photographing my trees I decided to post my trees and some observations on the trees. Please feel free to add your own Osage Orange trees either as bonsai, pre-bonsai or in the natural environment.


Maclura pomifera (Osage Orange, Bois d'Arc, Bodark, Bow wood, Hedge Apple) is a tree that was widely naturalized as a windbreak and natural livestock fence in the area of the Midwest where I grew up, which was actually 400 miles north of the present day range in the Red River drainage of Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas. The tree is easily recognized by its orange-hued bark, thorny branches, and grapefruit sized lumpy fruit commonly called hedge apples. The tree has a white milky sap and a yellow tannin content in the bark. The wood is very hard, dense, and considered one of the most decay resistant woods in North America (due in part to the tannin content?). It was reportedly named after a Scottish-born American Geologist, William Maclure.

Mature trees can be tall but tend to split into knobby multi-trunks with contorted branches growing out to create a very irregular broom form. My favorite hypothesis on the reduced range of this tree is that the large, mostly inedible fruits were once more widely dispersed by a now-extinct herbivore of the North American mega-fauna. The largest examples of these trees documented on the internet appears to be mostly from back East and not in the Midwest. Although there must be some large old trees in the 'native' range. These eastern trees were likely trees planted from seeds brought back by early explorers and traders moving across the country. These trees are certainly larger than any example that I grew up which might be due in part to climate differences. These larger trees back east appear to come from slightly warmer USDA zones 7/8 which are more similar to their 'native' range than the cooler Zone 6 where I was raised.

Reference for images of bark and fruit


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hemmy

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Old and Large Osage Orange Trees

Old Fort Harrod State Park Tree, KY

Harrod Filter.jpgHarrod Path.jpgHarrod Trunk_3.jpegHarrod Trunk_4.JPG
Google Map Photos


Red Hill Tree, Red Hill Patrick Henry National Memorial, in Charlotte County, Virginia - Champion Tree
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The Hagley tree at the Hagely Museum and Library, Wilmington, Delaware. This tree was felled in a storm in 2020. This was the Co-National Champion Tree of the species.

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Osage-orange on the grounds of 1427 Westfield Farm Ln in White post, Virginia, United States​


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hemmy

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Jim Lewis (@jk_lewis) Osage Orange Tree and Thread. As Jim mentions, he and Randy Davis published a short write-up in the ABS Journal, Bonsai Volume 47, No. 3, 2013


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hemmy

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In the ABS journal, Jim notes that there are thornless cultivars available in the nursery trade. Full sun will encourage smaller leaves and tighter growth. It is rated to USDA zone 4 (-25ºF) in the ground. It has also seemingly enjoyed growing in my zone 10a climate which is rated 25-35ºF, but in reality we have not seen below 40ºF in my microclimate in the past 8 years.

He notes that it is known to inhabit dryer climates, but that in a container it should be "kept moist with some allowance to moderately dry out between waterings. It wilts quickly if left dry too long." This has also been my experience that an actively growing plant in a small container will dry out quickly and can wilt. However, within minutes of watering they seem to return to normal. I have one in a small pot training root-over-rock in which the rock takes up a large portion of the container volume. As it has put on more roots throughout the year, it can be very quick to wilt on warmer days. I'm uncertain if previous wilting episodes make them more prone to future wilt in response to dry conditions as is suggested for some other trees.

Jim recommends a balanced fertilizer in during the growing season and I have observed that they appear to be heavy nitrogen users which can get slightly chlorotic in my high alkalinity water.

They back bud very well on old wood which I have seen in the trees in the landscape.

Jim notes that wiring should be done in the Fall after leaves have dropped to better avoid the thorns. I removed the thorns from the trunk and primary branches as they are wired and age. The wood is quite flexible, although I have torn several branches at the crotch by being careless.

He notes that cuttings (hard and soft) can be propagated, but does not provide the optimal timing. I cannot recall taking any cuttings, but I will take some this Fall and Spring for propagation and report back.

The tree readily sprouts from root cuttings, however the roots tend to have a flaky orange covering that is different texture from the above ground bark. Some cuttings have retained this covering for several years and it is unclear if they will eventual "bark up."

Jim reports that "Maclura has no pests or diseases of any significant nature to be concerned with." I would agree, but they have been susceptible to the occasional and very sparse white-fly invasion. I have had the occasional spider mite late in the season when we get our hot dry winds, but they are easily controlled with insecticidal soap and beneficial mites (or defoliation if late in the season at leaf drop). I have also encountered root mealy bugs in some repots, which seem to be effectively controlled with nematode applications in the Spring and Fall.
 

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Until just a couple years ago, Jim's was the only bonsai version that I have seen on the web. However, I just came across Guillermo Sempe's tree in Argentina. Below is a video link show his tree.

 

hemmy

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Maclura pomifera is the only member of the genus native to North America. Although it is in the mulberry or fig family (Moraceae) and there are other members of the Genus in South America, Africa, and Asia.

Based on my trees and those that I have seen cattle-grazed, they respond very well to pruning and defoliation. I believe average leave sizes of less than 1" are attainable, but I have not worked hard to reduce leave size in a constricted environment with a well ramified tree.

Below is a root cutting from circa 2020, that consisted to 2 branches this Spring. I cut it back 3 times and easily could have done more if I had been less forgetful. The average leaf size in this one gallon container is 1.5"
M pomifera2016_Sept2021_leave size.jpgM Pomifera2016_Aug 2021_RC ramify.jpgM Pomifera2016_Aug 2021_RC ramify02.jpg
 

hemmy

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The one failure (with a small sample size of only 3) has been the attempt to airlayer or ground layer in the container. As a related aside, it also seems to be fairly slow to callus and close wounds.

The layering attempts have failed to callus and I have yet to see any roots push. One was tried in early-Spring at bud break (ground layer), another in late Spring after most of the leaves had shiny cuticles developed (ground layer) and a third tried mid-Summer (branch airlayer).

This trunk was left to escape roots into the ground and let it completely overgrow the wire for that grotesque appearance. The wire constriction did not appear to negatively impact growth. When the tree was repotted at bud break, it was also layered in the container. It has failed to grow root or really any callus. However, the top growth has limped along. I expect it will not wake up from dormancy.

M pomifera2016_Sept 2021_WireBite_failed airlayer.jpgM pomifera2016_Sept 2021_Wire Bite failed airlayer zoom.jpg


The late Spring ground layer also did not put on any roots.

The mid-Summer airlayer has not put on roots, but has developed some small nodules on the young one year old wood. However they have not pushed roots for several months. Also note that there isn't any callus at the top of the layer where the wire is constricting. I may separate it as a cutting shortly. You can see that is back budded below the layer and the top is getting weak. All of the layers were dusted with rooting hormone but only a 0.1% IBA (RootBoost brand). Future tests will be with Hormodine 3 (0.8% IBA)

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On seed preparation, I had my father gather the ripe fruit from the ground in the Fall and put them in a bucket of water in the basement until I came to collect them in the Winter. The fruit was fairly well rotted and broken down and the sticky latex was mostly dissolved in the water. I mashed and mixed it up and poured off the floating fruit remnants. The seeds had sunk to the bottom but were not rotten and looked in good condition. I stratified them in the refrigerator for 60 days and then planted them out. Although the recommendation is only 30 days at 41ºF (Young and Young, 1992). Unfortunately, I cannot locate my notes on germination rates. I remember it as being quite good, but the only picture I could locate would counter that point. I believe the timing was quite variable across the trays and these early poor rates may have been from seeds not stratified. Either way, I started with several hundred seeds and still have a lot in the freezer. By August of 2016, that year's seedlings were 8" to 1-1/2' tall. Earlier that year I had shifted them from the seed trays to gallon pots or bags. I probably could have up pot them again in the late summer, but did not. In the busy photo at the bottom, they are in bags in the concrete blocks on the right and in some of the gallon pots in center.

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Young J.A. and C.G. Young. 1992. Seeds of woody plants in North America: revised and enlarged edition. Dioscorides Press. Portland, OR.
 

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By August 2017 of the following year, they had grown to 3-4 feet tall. The RootMaker and RootTrapper containers resulted in dense root masses that also corresponded to nice low branching and ramification up top.

Looking back at the pictures and as far as I can tell, I shifted some of them to 2 and 3 gallon containers in August 2017. Our average high is only 73ºF, so even with moderate root work none of these missed a beat. These were some of the first trees that I grew from seed and definitely suffered from my lack of experience. For trees that were destined for bigger trees or big chops, I would have pushed the growth harder and up potted more frequently. For those smaller trees, I would have left them in 1 gallon or smaller pots for the first year and pruned and defoliated to get smaller internodes in the trunk and primary branching.

In the below pic with two trunks is actually two trees with a mess of tangled roots. Unfortunately, I never corrected that and the current tree still has a girdling root over the base. I'm selling it for the cost of the RootMaker plastic container that its in.

M pomifera2016_Aug 2017 RM gal.JPGM pomifera2016_Aug 2017 RM gal_roots1.JPGM pomifera2016_Aug 2017 RM gal_roots2.JPGM pomifera2016_Aug 2017 RM gal_zoom.JPGM pomifera2016_Aug 2017 RT_double trunk.JPGM pomifera2016_Aug 2017 RT_double trunk_roots.JPGM pomifera2016_Aug 2017 RT_double trunk_zoom.JPGM pomifera2016_Aug 2017_RT shift.JPG
 

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Fast forward 5 years later and I have a mostly still underwhelming crop of pre-bonsai. Although there are a few trees with potential out of the several dozen that started (I also gave away or sold a dozen).

Here is a tree being grown to be "two-handed bonsai" size of around 20" tall. The sacrifice will be removed next year above the first branch is being trained as the next trunk. It will have a similar form to Jim Lewis' original tree. You can see a thickening branch low on the trunk still on as of June 2020 and a branch higher that had just been removed. Fast forward to Sept. 2021 and you can see the lowest sacrifice was removed this summer and both that scar and last years scar have yet to fully heal despite the trunk being ~9ft tall and the roots escaping into the ground in afternoon sun all Summer. Evidence of their apparent slow callus formation. I'm hoping to get lower sprouts on this trunk after next years major trunk removal so that I can develop a knobby scarred look on the trunk. I think the bark is developing nicely as we end the 6th growing season.
M pomifera2016_June 2020_slant.JPGM pomifera2016_Sept 2021_large slant full.jpgM pomifera2016_Sept 2021_large slant.jpg
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Here is another from the original seedlings that is being trained over a large rock. It wilts quite easily if I don't stay on top of watering due to the small soil mass. You can see wiring scarring on the trunk that I believe will eventually grow out. I tend to grow these in a wide variety of size mixes and ratios of mostly "orchid" bark, pumice, and a store bought acid-loving potting soil.

M pomifera2016_Sept 2021_ROR large.jpg
 

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This one of the few ones that I set out to grow as a shohin size. The first 2 pics from the second growing season and last pic from this year. The final trunk line has not been selected with the sacrifice portions still on. It has grown very slowly and has had frequent nutrition issues. The leaves are showing their age and will drop soon. But shown here to demonstrate the flexibility still retained in the 2nd year.

M pomifera2016_shohin curvy_June 2017_front.JPGM pomifera2016_shohin curvy_June 2018_back.JPGM pomifera2016_shohin curvy_Sept 2021.jpg
 

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I believe this is a root cutting that was further twisted. The large scar at the bottom from a sacrifice branch removal.

M pomifera2016_Sept 2021_pretzel.jpgM pomifera2016_Sept 2021_pretzel_01.jpg
 

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Here are some root cuttings that show the flaky orange root covering in contrast to the brownish orange bark. I expect that over time they will lose the brighter orange color and more resemble the color and texture of the twisted portion of the previous post. I'm not sure if they'll ever develop a bark type to match the upper portion.

M pomifera2016_Sept 2021_Root cutting horizontal.jpgM pomifera2016_Sept 2021_Root Cutting_02.jpgM pomifera2016_Sept 2021_root cutting02 zoom.jpgM pomifera2016_Sept 2021_Root cutting02.jpg
 

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I referenced this mistake earlier, where I didn't correct the girdling root after I combined these two trees. You can see from the last two pics from this month, that the girdled portion is quite obvious and has not fused well with the main trunk. Some trees (notably some ficus which are in the same family) will fuse and over grow a girdling root, although it is probably always advisable to correct the problem. The Osage Orange tree with this lack of prolific callus does not appear to fuse very well. This tree had to be moved from full sun to shade and back for space considerations and doesn't look to happy. Regardless, it will bounce back strong next year. Although given the poor nebari and lack of success with ground layering, this is probably a better candidate for root cuttings and will probably be sold for about the cost of the container (I'm not shipping, don't ask 👿).

M pomifera2016_Aug 2017 RT_double trunk_roots.JPGM pomifera2016_Sept 2021_twin slant.jpgM pomifera2016_Sept 2021_twin slant_zoom.jpg
 

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Lastly, a comment on Fall color. My experience and recollection is mostly a lime green giving way to yellow. Although, a Google Image search does show at least one image with an orange color. The leaves look pretty poor on these trees, but they are starting to get some Fall color.

M pomifera2016_Sept 2021_RoR.jpgM pomifera2016_Sept 2021_twisting trunk02.jpg
 

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Glad you found connection to special tree from family and youth☺️. Interesting tree species personally believed was shrub but appreciate learning of error. Enjoy yours;).
 

Jaymatsby

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Lovely post, thanks for compiling so much information here. I've been interested in Osage orange, and managed to take a very large (~5") air layer off of a tree in the landscape. It may be that large air layers will take more easily thanks to greater resources to produce roots? Here's a picture now, about a year and a half from removing it last year, it's about 35 from growth rings, and has the lovely fissured orange bark.PXL_20210926_231516137.jpg
 

hemmy

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I've been interested in Osage orange, and managed to take a very large (~5") air layer off of a tree in the landscape.
Excellent! More details please. Did you use rooting hormone, when did you start it and how long until you separated it?
 

Jaymatsby

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Excellent! More details please. Did you use rooting hormone, when did you start it and how long until you separated it?
I started in mid spring, no rooting hormone. Cut off a ring ~3-4" of the thick bark (got plenty of the sticky white sap), I also added a wire girdle at the top of the cut as tight as I could get it, and wrapped everything in sphagnum and plastic wrap. I separated pretty late, maybe late summer, about 4 months later. I could see the roots through the plastic wrap.
 
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