Quick! Can everybody identify these seemingly big brownish-green turd-looking things laying among the brown-er prairie grass of my pasture? I'll give a hint to the non-MidWesterners...they're a fruit.
But not a fruit that anyone really wants to eat, since it is mildly poisonous and may cause vomiting. Probably to no one's surprise, this is the Winter appearance of the ubiquitous Hedge Apple, Maclura pomifera, also known as the Osage-orange tree. Second in number only to the invasive Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) in Kansas, they are a very, very common weedy tree here, originally native to the Oklahoma-Texas region. We can probably blame FDR for the invasion of these trees; the WPA's Great Plains Shelterbelt" project planted hundreds of millions of Osage-orange trees on the Great Plains between 1934 and 1942.
Personally, I tend to hate Hedge Apples; thorny, multi-trunked, small trees that are impossibly hard to chop down and nearly impossible to kill since they sprout back every time from the stumps (unless you resort to herbicides). In fact, another reason they're believed to be common in the Flint Hills are because they are often used as fence posts and if you plant a bright orange-yellow fresh post, with a little bit of bark still on it, you'll often have a living tree soon afterwards. The species tree is pretty lousy as a gardening specimen, but it was useful to the Native Americans, who made bows of the strong, springy wood, and to the prairie settlers as fence posts, resistant to rot and very strong, in fact so strong that it is difficult to pound a fencing nail into a seasoned post. Usually I get a couple of good whacks at it and then the nail goes winging off into another dimension or bends in half before it is buried enough to hold up the wire.
All that aside, the large, heavy, fruit fascinates me. There is a large Osage-orange tree near my fence line that I've left alone primarily out of lazy aversion to dulling a chain saw or two on the trunk. Last year, I noticed that the tree had no fruit at all and I speculated about the effects of the late Fall drought in 2010, but this year, in a full low-rain and very hot summer, the tree produced more fruit than ever and the ground is covered with these hard lumps oozing sticky white latex. It makes mowing a jarring, messy experience, at the very least. Now, I'm wondering if the tree wasn't so much stressed last year as just demonstrating its diecious nature. Is it possible to be a male tree one year and a female tree the next? And if so, would these trees be allowed at all in the yards of Religious Right Republicans or banished from the kingdom?
Osage-orange trees also bring out the dinosaur-fascinated child in me. Most fruits, you'll remember, have evolved to be attractive to one or more species that were likely to harvest the fruit and aid in distribution of the seeds (often after passing through a digestive tract). But if we look around the prairie today, no animal is a distribution host consuming the Osage-oranges. They lay there all Winter and finally rot after multiple freeze thaw cycles, never moving far from where they fell. Neither cows, nor horses, nor even mice seem to care for them. Current theories for the "dispersal-host" of Osage-orange ranges from extinct giant ground sloths to other extinct Pleistocene megafauna such as the mammoth, mastodon or gomphothere. Now isn't that a neat idea? Just picture a giant sloth picking one of these off a solitary tree on the prairie, or a mastodon picking up one with its trunk and dropping it down the gullet.
A few thousand years back, that was the prairie, an endless savanna of big animals. Another ecosystem lost in time, represented today only by the grasses and the Osage-orange trees. And by me, wondering what used to be around to eat and digest these big rubbery balls.