Maclura Pomifera - Osage Orange. (Plant Palette)

Article excerpt

I've always had a particular fondness for plants that seem to pop out of nowhere. They're there all along, but you don't notice them until they do something unexpected that brings them to center stage for a while. Once they've done it, they fade back into the wings, and we forget about them, until they perform the same trick again next year.

Common witchhazel is one example. It's virtually invisible in the understory all summer and fall, until it unfurls its delicate, pale yellow flowers in November, lighting up the dark and dormant woods. Only then do you realize how common it really is, all around us.

The osage orange (Maclura pomifera) is another one. All year long, you drive past a non-descript, scruffy hedge-row, paying no attention to it, until suddenly one day, the side of the road is littered with big, pale-green grapefruits. How did they get there? People run over them with their cars. I love them. They're so goofy-looking. How many other temperate-zone fruits could you honestly call comical?

If you can pull over without causing an accident, then stop and pick some up. They have a nubbly surface and a faint, spicy odor, reminiscent of quince, that is curiously satisfying. My son and his first-grade classmates call them "monkey-brains," and value them highly. They're just right for carrying around on the end of a stick. When they soften, they disintegrate into a pile of stringy mush with a mess of seeds inside that resemble hulled sunflower seeds. How seed dispersal is served by such an extravagant fruit is a mystery, since no animal seems to eat them. Squirrels will eat the seeds in the wintertime, once the fruits disintegrate. One or more components within the fruit apparently have value as insect repellents, according to numerous Internet articles that come up when you search under "osage orange." (Maybe some day I'll do that, and learn something. …