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Biodiversity Blog

 

CAMPUS BIODIVERSITY: the Horse Apple Tree, or Maculra pomifera

 

HorseApple tree ver02
Maculra pomifera (Photo: Larry Gilbert)

by Dr. Larry Gilbert, (Professor, Department of Integrative Biology)

One of the few trees of the original forest on UT’s main campus is a huge Maculra pomifera, also known as “Osage orange” or “horse apple.” A male tree of this species grows in front of Welch Hall. Other members of the family include the fig and the mulberry. The female produces softball-sized green fruit that is bumpy and limegreen. This fruit is actually composed of numerous one-seeded druplets. The tree grows to be medium-sized, usually up to 40 feet tall, with a short trunk up to three feet in diameter. It also has many crooked, interweaving, thorny branches that form a dense, spreading crown.

Before a past renovation of Welch, the tree currently there had a double trunk. This happens if the initial sapling is cut and then forked near the ground, then two coequal trunks can develop. In this case the paired trunks were equally massive. The second trunk was taken down to make room for removal of construction debris.

Historically, the species was known as "yellow wood" or more commonly as “bois d’ arc,” a name given by early French settlers who observed Native Americans using the wood for war clubs and bow-making. Thickets of this tree produce straight suckers of hard, unbranched wood which is superior for making quality bows. A four-foot bow of this wood can have a draw weight of 80 lbs. Comanches considered such a bow to be as valuable as a horse.

 HorseApple 01
 Horse apples. (Photo: Larry Gilbert)

In the mid 19th century, settlers in the Midwest planted the tree as a natural “fence” for their livestock since the trees withstood winds, heat, and had no serious pest problems. Thorns of the tree are rumored to also have inspired the idea for barbed wire.

Del Weniger, Professor Emeritus of Our Lady of the Lake University, studied historical records of this tree in Texas. Interestingly, in the 1996 SIDA article, Catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides, bignoniaceae) and Bois D'arc (Maclura pomifera, moraceae) in Early Texas Records, Weniger concluded that its natural range was extreme north east Texas and possibly extreme south east Texas. Yet old trees of this species are scattered from the Trans-Pecos to Central Texas and elsewhere out of the natural range.

Weniger points out that the locations of occurrence support the idea that Native Americans spread the tree intentionally since it occurs at known camp sites. Indeed, the giant tree on UT campus sits on high ground near Waller Creek, and thus a logical camp spot for people. Another local tree, a (a female) lives on Shoal Creek north of the bridge where 24th Street crosses.

 texasmap

An alternative possibility is that the tree was spread not by direct human intent, but by horses after the Comanche adopted a horse culture around 1680 and arrived in Central Texas in the mid 1700’s. Horses evolved in North America and likely ate Maculra fruit and dispersed the seed.

However, horses disappeared with the great megafauna extinction after the arrival of humans around 13,000 years ago. Parenthetically, had those first North Americans domesticated the horse rather than killing them for food, the arrival of the Spanish with horses might not have led to a successful colonization. North American history would have unfolded more like central Asia, with human populations resistant to invasion, as the Comanche later were in Texas.

Currently, this specific osage orange tree in front of WEL is tagged as number 1405, and can be located at UT's myTreeKeeper site. The tree provides an estimated $173 in eco-benefits to campus.

SOURCES:

Bleed Orange, Live Green Campus Tour. (accessed online https://sustainability.utexas.edu/bleed-orange-live-green-campus-tour)

Jauron, Richard. Iowa State University, Extension and Outreach. Facts and Myths Associated with Hedge Apples (accessed online June 7, 2018: https://hortnews.extension.iastate.edu/1997/10-10-1997/hedgeapple.html)

Texas Tree ID, Texas A&M University (accessed online June 7, 2018: http://texastreeid.tamu.edu/content/TreeDetails/?id=61)

Weniger, Del. “Catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides, bignoniaceae) and Bois D'arc (Maclura pomifera, moraceae) in Early Texas Records” SIDA, Contributions to Botany, Vol. 17, No. 1 (September, 1996), pp. 231-242

 

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