For Star Trek Week on io9, Katharine Tendacosta posted (among many great articles) “What’s Your Favorite Thing About Star Trek”, and it got me thinking about playing at Trek with my grade-school pals, in a little copse that was most always littered with ALIEN BRAINS...
Of course, I’m talking about “hedge apples”, but if you were a sci-fi kid in the 70s, the fruits looked just like the brain-heads of aliens from Mars Attacks trading cards (that kids would steal from older siblings and sneak onto the playground, all subversive-like) and various other classics, like This Island Earth or Fiend Without A Face or even Star Trek’s own Talosians.
While the other kids were playing “tether-ball” or “jungle gym” or “punch your neighbor” or whatever, we would run to the edge of the playground where an old woods/windbreak was, and Kirk and Spock and the crew would proceed to have myriad adventures, all based on the piles of hedge apples that were always there.
We’d journey down to the mysterious tree-covered planet, and then-
“These must be the eggs of the brain-monsters!” or,
“All that’s left of them is their brains!” or, the eternal classic-
“Look out! These brain creatures are shooting death-beams at us!”
Hedge apples are also known as “Monkey Balls” because of their great usefulness as impromptu sporting equipment (and not the other thing, because how big would that monkey have to be?). They’re the odd fruits of the Bois D’Arc (or Osage Orange or Bodark or Bodock) tree, and have no real nutritional value to people or extant North American fauna (only the boot-strappiest of squirrels will dig through the very bitter gunk to eat the seeds), but the wood has been highly valued and cultivated for centuries.
In prehistoric times, they could be found on much of the North American continent. But by the time of the Columbian Exchange, their range was reduced to a relatively small area controlled by the native Spiro Mound/Mississippian peoples in present day Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. This is most likely explained by the fact that the bois d’arc’s assumed primary seed-spreader, the giant ground sloth, had long since vanished.
A member of the Mulberry family, the tree (Maclura pomifera) gets its original European name from the Osage Nation’s description of it to French explorers: “Bow Wood”. Maclura pomifera was considered by many Europeans (and present-day archers) to be superior to even the fabled European Yew tree when it came to quality bows. Indigenous peoples would travel hundreds of miles to obtain this wood, and by the late 18th century, a bow crafted from this tree was said to be worth a prime horse and a wool blanket (hence the secret Osage name for the tree, “Aooyiwa nokakini, Aapi ninaa”, or, “Pay up, white devil”).
(That secret name bit is 100% made-up. Probably.)
The wood of the bois d’arc is almost preternaturally resistant to insects, fungus, rot, disease, and even splintering. It’s also remarkably long-burning and gives off the highest BTUs of any North American wood. Which leads us to some reasons for its ubiquitousness in 19th and 20th century America...
1) Settlers needed hedgerows and fencing for livestock, and protection from scoundrels and/or the people they stole the land from. They planted bois d’arcs. As a young tree, it is fast-growing, and twisty and turny and covered with big spiky thorns. As a mature tree, they’re still twisty and turny, but hard as rock while still remaining flexible. Bonus points: the very best firewood.
2) After the 1873 invention and rapid spread of barbed wire, the hedgerows provided ample wood for fence posts. To this day, if you see an unfinished or semi-finished rural fence or fence post, it’s likely a hundred-year-old piece of bois d’arc. It basically will not rot. The hedgerows and windbreaks that weren’t chopped down because they surrounded homes and out-buildings just stayed there. And thrived.
3) Between 1934 and 1942, F. D. Roosevelt’s administration oversaw the planting of over 220 million trees, a great many of them bois d’arcs, as a response to erosion and the great Midwestern “dust bowl” eco-catastrophe.
If you were a North American kid up until perhaps the 1990s, you probably had a bunch of these trees on your play turf. Now, they are less and less common. Since their natural range was quite small prior to the 18th century, most of the trees we’ve grown up playing and hiking around were planted around property lines. And that’s the first thing to get bulldozed when the new subdivision or mini-mall is planned, or when the factory farm consolidates/expands.
The young trees are quite inexpensive from nurseries, so perhaps (like me) you will decide your property needs a handful of these incredible native trees. Because of the tree’s anti-fungal chemical properties and resistance to insect predation, folklore and farmers’ tales still exist about its (unproven and most likely false) ability to ward off spiders! So quite a few Midwestern groceries and farmer’s markets stock and sell these fruit for this fabled spider-warding purpose, and it’s fairly easy to grow trees from them in most climates.
So, whether you’re landscaping or just having a walk in the woods, enjoy the awesome Alien Brains, Monkey Balls, Hedge Apples, Osage Oranges, and Bodarks! And, when you see one, remember to always say, just as a matter of principle, “That brain creature is shooting a death-beam at me!”
EL34 is a turtle wrangler in central Florida. At least that’s what it says on his LinkedIn profile for the past five years.