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Pickled gardeners’ brains!

The Osage Orange tree, a native of America
The Osage Orange tree, a native of America

I do hope you are all enjoying reading the monthly muses of our apprentice, telling of his exploits and discoveries as he starts his career in horticulture.

On the other hand, whereas I should know a little more about the working of our plants, I discover more each week...

For example, we had a student trip to Cambridge University Botanic gardens. I know December may not seem the most obvious time for a visit, but gardens are not all about bright colourful flowers.

In fact, it is at this time of year that we can appreciate the structure of the garden, as well as shape and form of trees and shrubs – both evergreen and deciduous.

The bark of the various birches (Betula species) was dramatic, from the brilliant white of the Himalayan Birch to the brown shaggy bark of the River birch.

But the highlight of the visit, for me at least, was finding a tree I had heard about but never seen. Not a rare tree by any means, but simply one I had not, knowingly at least, crossed paths with.

I had to ask at the entrance where I would find it, so with the location duly marked with an ‘x’ on my map we set off. We could easily have passed it by if we had not been looking out for the windfall fruits dislodged by the weekend gales.

There they were. A scattering of yellow citrus-like fruits which I think live up to their most apt of common names: pickled gardeners’ brains.

The unusual fruits are from the Maclura pomifera, a native American tree also known by the less exciting common names of Osage Orange or hedge apple.

Originally found in Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas, it is now distributed throughout the United States, where it is often grown as a tough, cattle-proof hedge due to its thorny stems.

The wood was once prized by Native American Indians who would travel many miles to exploit it for bow making. In early 19th century Arkansas, a good Osage bow was apparently worth a horse and a blanket!

However, it is the fruits I wanted to see. The trees are dioecious; that is they have separate male and female trees. The one at the Botanics is a female – but will bear fruit even though there is no male about, although these are therefore seedless.

The skin is bumpy and does resemble an orange (or a very small gardener’s brain) but is not a citrus, but is more closely related to mulberries and figs. The fruit is known as a syncarp, a compound fruit, as the carpels (ovaries) have grown together to form one large structure.

Fleshy fruits are developed for consumption by animals – and it appears that its original natural distributors may have included mammoths and a now extinct giant ground sloth.

Now it has to make do with horses!

n Manea School of Gardening (RHS Approved Centre)

www.maneaschoolof gardening.org


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