As Seen in Kansas Part 1: Hedge Apples

Introduction to the “As Seen in Kansas” Series

When you get used to a place, you forget the fantastically weird things happening all around you.

Once in a New York park, I watched a couple of picnicking Aussies get mobbed by a pack of squirrels. Having never seen a squirrel, the Australians screamed and ran, thinking they were about to be eaten by giant rats.

When you’re new to a place, there’s high potential for excitement and fascination over things the locals find utterly mundane.

Like, as a Southern Californian, laughing at foreign visitors to Disneyland excitedly posing for a photograph in front of a trash can.

In Kansas, they have their own version of this classic tale: A Kansas local is showing some big-city businessmen around and they’re driving by some empty, barren fields. A businessman shouts, “STOP!” and with great excitement, runs outside and admires the view. “This is incredible,” says the businessman. “What? It’s just nothing for miles,” says their Kansas guide. The businessman responds, “Exactly.”

For this series, we will be examining the wonderful and the weird in Kansas.

Part 1: The Hedge Apple

The first time I saw a hedge apple, there were about 50 of them scattered in a small grassy yard. I thought we were being invaded by body snatchers, or perhaps I’d wandered onto the set of Critters 5.

I asked Rachel’s dad, a Kansas native, about ’em. He calls them “hedge apples,” but you can’t eat ’em. Squirrels break them apart and eat the seeds, but that’s about the only animal willing to mess around with them.

In fact, insects hate these booger-green brain balls too. Hedge apples are nature’s bug repellent, thanks to one of the compounds that they produce. Kansans stash them away in basements or under beds to get rid of crickets, ticks, mosquitoes and spiders.

As creepy as they look, you should see an aroused female hedge apple—each of those little green nodules shoots out like a tentacle, giving the apple a Koosh-ball appearance.

The actual name of these green balls is “Osage orange,” but the nickname “hedge apple” goes back a few generations: The trees that produce these strange balls were planted like hedges, in miles and miles of rows, as a natural fencing for livestock long before barbed wire was invented.

The rugged tree which produces the hedge apple is made of incredible stuff. Native Americans used the wood to make bows. Rachel’s dad says that if you take a chainsaw to the wood, it’ll spark.

The wood is incredibly dense and heavy with the highest BTUs of any North American firewood. In Kansas, it’s often used as shabby chic fence posts. The wood will last decades in rough weather, shrinking and hardening into a stone-like post, as seen in this mural below, painted by Rachel’s Grandma, Pat Potucek, as part of a 22′ x 7′ mural depicting sweeping Midwestern landscapes and the history of Barton County, Kansas.

The FDR Administration’s plan to resuscitate the Midwest after the dust bowl included planting hundreds of thousands of trees as windbreaks, and the hedge apple was a favorite of the administration.

So next time you’re in a Midwestern field and you find yourself surround by little green orbs, you might be at the ground zero of an alien invasion—or you might just be in Kansas. If I were you, I wouldn’t hedge my bets.

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