Friday, November 6, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Osage orange – the alleged spider repellent

Every year at this time you might see some strange fruits falling from trees. These mammoth, warty balls that are the size of softballs are called Osage oranges.

Unlike true oranges, you can’t eat these fruits. Rock hard, they take some time to turn soft and rot; therefore, they tend to be quite bothersome to any homeowners who might have one of the trees in their yard.

These trees, though, did have some uses -- and some alleged uses – that make for an interesting history.

Legitimate uses of the Osage orange

The Osage orange has many possible uses, but in Niagara County it is
mostly just an annoyance. (CONTRIBUTED PHOTO)
Long ago, before the advent of barbed wire, ranchers throughout the country used Osage orange trees as hedgerows and nature fence lines. The trees grow rather quickly and straight (reaching heights of 50 feet)…and they can be as nasty as barbed wire: The trees sport squat, powerful thorns on the limbs.

Cattle would not leave their designated ranches because they could not bust through the hedges without great pain and serious bloodletting.

Its common planting outside of its natural range of the southern US was facilitated by the tree’s ability to handle almost anything thrown at it – drought, oppressive cold, insects and disease. It was a tree that a farmer could plant and forget about.

The properties of the wood (it’s strong, heavy and shrink-proof) also lent the trees to being cut down
and turned into fence posts and furniture.

Prior to the clearing of the land and the white man setting foot on North American soil, Native Americans found much use for Osage orange trees. They made war clubs out of the wood and they fashioned some of the best performing bows from it. Some hardcore archers still to this day revel in its brilliance in that regard. As a matter of fact, one name for this tree is bois d’arc which is French for “bow wood.” Native Americans also extracted yellow dyes from the wood that were used as face paints and to color clothing.

Where to find them in Niagara County 

Despite their widespread use throughout the farmlands of America, Osage oranges weren’t and aren’t commonly used in Niagara County. In the days of old, local farmers preferred to make hedgerows of locusts, alders and oaks as this land was more for fruits and grains than it was for roaming cattle in any large number.

But, there are a few spots where you can find them.

One place is Willowbrook golf course in Wright’s Corners. One of the greens nearest the pro shop is bordered by a hedgerow of Osage oranges. There are also some very impressive specimens on the roadside on Route 104 in the area of Lazy Lakes campground and Twelve-Mile Creek in Cambria. The fruits will lie on the southern shoulder throughout November, just begging passing motorists to stop and pick them up. And people do pick them up on the strength of an old wives’ tale regarding arachnids.

Do Osage oranges deter spiders?

If you listen to WLVL you might remember some callers to the infamous Tradio show who were looking for or selling Osage oranges. This commercial activity was based on the long held belief that Osage oranges repel spiders. Allegedly, if you placed the fruits around your foundation in the fall, spiders would not enter your home. Some old wives would even go so far as to put the fruits under their bed to keep the creepy crawlies away.

Neither of those practices work. The magical powers of the oranges are mostly mythical.

I say “mostly” because an Iowa State University study found that there are chemical compounds in Osage oranges that are offensive to cockroaches – but they appear in such minute quantities in the
fruits that they have absolutely no effect on roaches, spiders, or any arthropod for that matter.

The scientists believed that the Osage oranges only appeared to work because the fruits fell to the earth at the same cool times that spiders and insects were winding down their activity for the season.

So, do yourself a favor. Don’t put the fruits around your house. And certainly don’t put them under your bed. There the smelly fruits would probably serve as a repellent -- for anyone who you would otherwise want to join you there.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where Osage oranges are few and spiders are numerous (there’s no correlation there). Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 05 November 2015 East Niagara Post

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