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Mystery Plant: Brain power evident in showy flower and durable wood

Mystery Plant: Brain power evident in showy flower and durable wood

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Just in time for Halloween, something spooky: it’s a brain.

I showed this picture to someone who remarked that it might be my brain — and that, after all, a botanist’s brain should be green. That may be true, but I was sort of hoping that my brain might be a couple of sizes larger than this thing.

Here we have what is botanically known as a “multiple” fruit. It’s the result of many, many tiny female flowers jammed together into a cluster. After pollination, the flowers swell, and as their ovaries grow, all of them coalesce into this massive structure, which sometimes can be the size of a large orange, or even a grapefruit. Each of the tiny ovaries inside produces a single seed.

The fresh, ripe fruit is quite solid, usually an attractive yellow color, and filled with plenty of sticky white latex. Don’t even think about eating one of these things. (On the other hand, squirrels seem to have no difficulty in chewing through the pulp. Although we humans find it inedible, it comes from a plant that is related to the very edible breadfruit of “Mutiny on the Bounty” fame.)

There has been some thought that the fresh fruits, scattered under your kitchen sink, will keep all the roaches out of your house. Yet another urban myth.

Our Mystery Plant is a deciduous member of the mulberry family. It is native, historically, to the central U.S., from Missouri and Kansas to Texas. It has been spread far from its native range, however, and can be found in cultivation just about anywhere. Individual plants are either male or female, and of course, only the female plants will produce the fruits.

This species is potentially a large tree, although it is more commonly a shrub. Large trees form dark gray or reddish plated bark. The wood is quite hard and durable, and is prominently orange-red. It has handsome dark green leaves on smooth stems. The tissues of the stem and leaves will drip white latex (as will the fruit) if damaged. The stems are murderously armed with stout spines, and indeed, this plant is not going to work for a treehouse. In fact, it has enjoyed great popularity in the olden days as a natural kind of barbwire.

This species was used commonly as a hedge, through which no horse, bull or pig would attempt crossing, thanks to the stickers. It also makes a fine windbreak. The plants themselves are nearly indestructible.

This species is sometimes referred to as “bow-dock,” which is a curious name. It turns out that Native Americans, and especially of the Osage tribe, were apparently fond of using the wood from this plant to fashion their bows. In fact, a bow made from this species was the best available, strong and durable. (Modern-day bowyers prize this as a natural wood source for their craft.) Now, the French term for a bow made of wood is, of course, “bois d’arc,” and the rest is pronunciational history.

Answer: “Osage orange,” Maclura pomifera.

John Nelson is the retired curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. As a public service, the herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit or email

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