As part of her plenary talk at the 2014 ReLeaf Conference at Hofstra, Urban Horticulture Institute Director Nina Bassuk held up some underutilized trees that have worked well for her in Ithaca’s urban environs. Among them was ‘White Shield’ Osage orange (Maclura pomifera). In future posts we’ll cover others she recommended, like American smoketree (Cotinus obovatus).
‘White Shield’ Osage Orange
‘White Shield’ is the most readily available cultivar of Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) on the market. Although Osage orange is native to Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas, it grows readily beyond its native range. Because of the thorny nature of its juvenile (non-fruiting) stems, it was used as a natural fence for keeping in livestock. By hedging the tree, the juvenile, thorny form is perpetuated. In Ithaca, there is a remnant of such a hedge right in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
Osage orange is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers form on separate trees. This is important because the fruits on female trees are enormous, about 6 inches (15 cm) in diameter. They are a conglomerate of beautiful green seeds and fruit that hangs on the tree until ripe in early fall. They then fall to the ground and could cause injuries and property damage, not to mention the mess. I’ve heard it reported that the fruits repel cockroaches and were sold in urban greenmarkets as a natural insecticide.
Luckily, male (fruitless) cultivars like ‘White Shield’ are readily available. ‘White Shield’ is an exceptionally fast-growing form once established. Branches are distinctly upright with glossy green leaves. Another especially beautiful cultivar is ‘Wichita’, selected by the late John Pair. Both of these selections originate from Oklahoma.
Osage orange has a lot going for it as a tough urban tree. Once established, it tolerates very droughty, windy, and hot sites. It can handle a wide range of pH, including highly alkaline soils, and is purported to be tolerant of wet conditions as well. It can also tolerate salt spray. It has no serious pests, and transplants easily. It matures at 20 to 40 feet (6 to 12 m) tall and similar spread.
It is considered hardy to Zone 4a; however, we have occasionally noticed some twig dieback perhaps due to failure to harden off sufficiently before winter in our zone 5. It readily grows out of the dieback during the following summer. Fruitless cultivars of Maclura pomifera like ‘White Shield’ are definitely worth a look. —Nina Bassuk, Director of the Cornell Urban Horticulture Institute