Osage oranges look like a cross between a neon green brain and a baseball.

The fruit is hardy enough to survive fall frosts when they’re grown in container gardens and used in floral arrangements.

Crafters also turn the bark of the Osage orange tree into a natural dye, creating colors from dark orange to tan.

The strong yet flexible wood can become everything from bows to furniture.

And farmers plant the tree on property lines, creating natural fence rows.

What can’t this tree do?

Well, it can’t be eaten.

“I’m Lisa Sanchez, the naturalist who eats bugs and eats other wild edible food,” says Sanchez, who works for Lancaster County Parks & Recreation. “I’m not going to eat ... food that the majority of the books you read say is not edible.”

As summer fades and fall arrives, the Osage oranges soon will fall to the ground. Even if you can’t add the fruit to your salad, the tree has an interesting history. The fruit can be saved for decorating for fall, Halloween and into the holidays.

Osage orange, long ago

Long before the tree became a natural fence found throughout the country, Osage oranges were clustered in the Red River region of east-central Texas, southeastern Oklahoma and Arkansas. As the Ice Age wound down, big animals like wooly mammoths and ground sloths ate this fruit, according to the American Forests conservation organization.

Later, Osage Nation, a Midwestern Native American tribe, used the trees’ strong yet flexible wood to make bows.

A Lancaster County Parks & Recreation intern made his own bow from the wood, and Horn Farm Center in Hallam usually offers an annual bow-making class in late summer that uses the wood.

Explorers Lewis and Clark sent back cuttings of Osage orange trees to Thomas Jefferson, noting that Native Americans would travel hundreds of miles to harvest the wood, according to their journals.

The name comes from the Native American tribe and the orange color of the wood.


Osage orange tree

Horn Farm Center is planting Osage orange trees in its reforestation project. The tree is ecologically useful, says Jon Darby, the site’s education director, and as the tree grows, its wood can be harvested for fence posts, stakes and the bow-making classes.

While the tree can be found in Pennsylvania’s farmland, Joe Schott does not tend to osage orange trees at Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum, where he is farm and garden manager. But he has quite a few at his farm in southern Lebanon County.

Schott and his wife, Peggy, planted about 500 of the trees along a property line to pen their sheep.

“It’s a curiosity that we put out there, for fun,” Schott says.

The trees have kept the sheep in place.

The fruit, however, isn’t so great. It falls on the ground and stays there because not many animals eat the osage oranges.

Osage orange arrangements

Mindi Bruckhart of Cool Spring Garden adds osage oranges into fall and winter floral arrangements.

Floral arrangements

But the fruit does have fans who use it as a decoration.

Right now, Mindi Bruckhart is focusing on the dahlias she grows and adds to floral designs in her Manheim-area business, Cool Spring Garden.

Just before the area has its first frost, she’ll add osage oranges. Bruckhart will use them through the holidays.

“I love the lime green color that they have,” she says.

The color stands out next to seasonal greens and red berries. The bumpy skin adds another type of texture.

They work for indoor centerpieces and outdoor planters, even as the temperature fluctuates.

To make the fruit easier to work with, Bruckhart pierces them with bamboo skewers in her arrangements.

At Colonial Williamsburg, osage oranges are the sturdiest fruit on the list of natural materials staff gather for its iconic holiday decorations. Squirrels and birds love the red apples, and sometimes visitors even take a bite, says Landscape Services Manager Joanne Chapman. The osage oranges don’t present those temptations.

While Colonial Williamsburg focuses on 17th and 18th century America, the holiday decorations are from the Victorian era. What would earlier colonists think of using precious fruit as decor?

“Crazy,” says Laura Viancour, director of Landscape Services at Colonial Williamsburg. “Fruit was a luxury, especially in the winter. Apples would come from New England, pineapples from the islands. For you to waste it on a door would be unheard of. It was unusual for you to even have fruit on the table. You were probably one of the 10 percent, affluent gentry.”

Through the years, the osage oranges have become part of the fruit-filled decorations at Colonial Williamsburg. About two dozen foraged from the site will be part of this year’s display in time for the grand illumination on Dec. 8. This week, the first fruits were collected. They’ll be wrapped in newspaper and stored in a cooler until it’s time to make the wreaths.

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Naturally dyeing over here! #osageorange & #avocadopits The bright yellow napkins and stripey wool sweater (which my husband says makes me look like a 🐅 tiger...🙄) were both dyed in Osage orange only. The pink cloth in the middle was only dyed in avocado pits 🥑. The wool yarn and orangeish cloth we're dyed in both. We also found some walnuts...but not enough for dyeing...yet. And my sophisticated dyeing studio! You can read all about my #naturaldyeing process in this Sunday's Handcrafted Newsletter...sign up in the profile link! . . . . #ilovetomakethings #handmadestyle #handmade #livingbyhand #handmadewardrobe #homesweethome #homemade #dyeingismagic #makerslife #makersgonnamake #simplelife #simpleliving #dyeingwithplants #dyeingwithfoodwaste

A post shared by Tina Bury (@kinshiphandwork) on Sep 12, 2019 at 8:05am PDT

A natural dye

Sanchez, the naturalist with the county parks department, admires the orange color of the wood and tried to use it as a natural dye.

After some attempts, she now prefers the bark to dye wool and natural fibers.

“You get a really neat orange color from using the bark of the wood,” she says.

Osage creates colors ranging from dark orange to tan.

Sanchez leads hikes in Chickies Rock County Park, which was transferred from Lancaster County to East Donegal Township in 2015.

When hiking in that area, Sanchez will ask if anyone is familiar with osage orange trees. In each group, one, maybe two people will raise their hands.

“In most groups, most people, it’s a new thing. ‘What’s this cool brain-like looking thing on the ground’ ” Sanchez says. “Kids are intrigued, and so are adults, because it’s not a common tree.”