The Magic of Monkey Balls: Truth or Tale?

Oct 4, 2013



“Hedge apples, direct to you!” An Internet site suggests that placing these objects “around the foundation or inside the basement provide relief from cockroaches, spiders, box elder bugs, crickets, and other pests.” Hedge apples. Aren’t they ugly fruits that look like a green brain? In fact, green brain is another term for this wild pod along with the terms Osage orange, hedge balls, monkey balls, and horse apples.

The reason I researched these ugly orbs is because I found a hedge apple tree near my daughter’s house. I’d read they repel pests and wanted to know if there was any truth to that claim. Sources agreed these pungent balls keep bugs at bay.

To test this, I brought several spicy scented, oddly textured fruits home and set them on the patio. When I headed to work the next morning, I noticed one had disappeared.  In a hurry, I blamed our big yellow dog, who sometimes entertains himself with balls left in the yard.  

I returned from school to discover another sphere gone. A  confirmed mystery lover, I was on a quest.  Where were my hedge apples?  While they don’t stink, they don’t smell like anything my dog normally found interesting.  Fruit scents don’t do a thing for him. I know. I’ve tried to feed him leftover fried apples.

Next, I thought my husband tossed them, not recognizing my natural pest control experiment. Before I could accuse him of throwing away my research, I found shreds of my green globes.  Nothing about their state resembled ball, orange, or brain. Something had removed them from the porch to a nearby cedar.  Once the mystery critter had the sphere where it wanted it, it exploded it into microscopic pieces.  Putting that mess back together would confound the best crime scene investigator.  

That night I showed my family the jumble. My spouse immediately blamed squirrels. It’s easy to blame those squirrels for anything wrong at our house, but my hubs told me he frequently saw that exact sight under hedgerows in the country when he was on patrol.  Despite his confident response, I spent time in cyber space, looking up hedge apples.  What I found was more fascinating than seeing the actual fruit.

Hedge apples are fruit of the Osage orange, native to eastern Texas, southeast Oklahoma, and southwestern Arkansas. Since humans don’t eat them and few animals do, I wondered why so many Osage orange trees thrive in Kansas, a much drier and cooler climate than their native region.

Further reading answered that question. Strong, powerful thorns arm the tree’s branches. Prior to discovery of barb wire, ranchers and farmers planted these around a quarter or a section of land. Livestock couldn’t penetrate this “living fence.”  That explains the multitudinous hedgerows as far north as Iowa. Many old farmsteads have unusual fences.

Unlike some introduced species that do more harm than good, one might consider the tree a boon. It tolerates poor soil, heat, and strong wind (sounds like a Kansas tree to me). In addition, it transplants well and resists disease. Not only does it share these desirable traits, it also produces a durable and beautiful wood.  I saw a lovely garden bench made of Osage orange, in which orange, yellow, and brown tones created an object  as much art as utilitarian.

Due to the wood’s strength, it can serve as fence posts, insulator pins, furniture, and archery bows. Some claim it is the best wood for archery bows, explaining its French name, the bois d’arc for bow wood. Maybe we should plant more of it in western Kansas and become the world bow capital.

Interesting tree facts led me astray, so back to my experiment. I expected relief from the annual box elder bug invasion. Spiders who hoped to share our house this winter would have to lodge elsewhere, and crickets would have to practice their obnoxious tunes in another house. One source offers this natural pest repellent at a $1.50 per hedge apple, plus shipping. The ad said to buy plenty and freeze some to use later. I picked up at least $30 dollars’ worth of bug deterrent for free in my daughter’s alley.

If I could get used to the smell of these odd fruits, I might be onto the solution for the annual fall in migration of unwanted insects. I found myself watching for a swarm of box elder beetles or crickets to exit my house. More to come. . . .