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There are many things that spur exploration, from benign curiosity to the evils of imperialism to the thrill of adventure and entrepreneurship and everything in between.
For as different as these impulses may be, however, whenever we as individuals or cultures encounter new plants, one of our first questions is inevitably “Is this edible?”
Our ancestors were hunters and gatherers, after all, foraging for plants and berries to survive. With so much of the planet covered in a wide array of different flora, and our appetites for new knowledge and food equally voracious, this question of edibility isn’t set to leave us any time soon.
But what about when we encounter a plant that straddles the border between edible and otherwise?
Enter the Hedge Apple. A staple in the New World along the Mississippi, the first English-language accounts of hedge apples date to 1804, when William Dunbar explored the area around the Ozarks and set cuttings back to then-President Jefferson.
It intrigued them then, and intrigued us now – in part because that question of what hedge apples can be used for and, yes, if we can eat them remains a complex one.
Hedge Apple 101
For those who have never seen one before, hedge apples are typically yellowish-green and grow to about the size of a softball.
These plants generally grow to somewhere between 25 and 30 feet. The fruit of these plants are commonly called both “hedge balls” as well as “hedge apples.”
What makes these fruits truly stand out, however, is the “hedge” shape it takes on. Instead of a single round, smooth fruit, a hedge apple has interconnecting patterns of indentations along the exterior.
This immediately distinguishes them from ordinary apples or, indeed, most fruits you’re likely to see along the Mississippi.
Are Hedge Apples Poisonous?
Upon first looking at the unique color and shape of the fruit, you might well wonder if it’s poisonous.
While that’s not strictly the case, the answer’s more complicated than that.
Hedge apples are listed by the American Association of Poison Control Centers as nontoxic. However, that isn’t the whole story.
While hedge apples aren’t toxic themselves, they contain substances that are sticky irritants, which can in turn cause dermatitis or eczema.
True, annoying as it may be, eczema isn’t anywhere close to lethal, and some skin cream can often be enough to take care of it. That said, getting a nasty rash probably isn’t something you’re willing to get just to handle these fruits.
The problems don’t stop there, either. Hedge apples also contain isoflavones, which have phenolic, which is itself like white willow.
This is a precursor to aspirin. However, on its own, it can also be a stomach irritant.
You may not have eaten a “poisonous” fruit, but from the severe pain that may ensue, you may feel like you have.
Are Hedge Apples Edible for Humans or Livestock?
So, with that appetizing preamble, it should probably not come as much surprise that, while hedge apples are not toxic per say and thus you “can” technically eat them, you almost certainly shouldn’t.
You hardly want to have to deal with the severe stomach pain, which will almost certainly ensue.
It isn’t as though hedge fruits are particularly nourishing or nutritious, either. In fact, as foodstuff for both humans as well as animals, hedge apples are unpalatable and practically useless.
Well, maybe you can use hedge apples as a means of feeding livestock.
Unfortunately, that isn’t necessarily the case, either. While cattle may not die from the hedge apples’ contents themselves, their size and shape can get stuck in their throats, causing them to suffocate.
Even if you mash them up, however, hedge apples remain quite unpalatable and your cattle probably won’t be too pleased at the prospect of having to eat them.
While cattle aren’t exactly the pickiest of eaters, if you have pretty much any other choice, they’d probably appreciate it, and you’d benefit from their eating food that is actually nutritious and won’t potentially cause them severe stomach pain.
What About as a Pest Control Measure?
So, eating hedge apples is pretty much out of the question. Still, these fruits grow all over the area, so you might well wonder if they can be used for something else.
If you live in the Ozarks region, you may have indeed seen people trying to use hedge apples for entirely different purposes, namely as a pest control measure. This is an old home remedy that has persisted in the region for some time. Still, is there any validity to it?
At first blush, you might think that this isn’t a crazy idea. After all, if hedge apples are so unappetizing, surely insects won’t wish to eat them.
If the innards produce a juice that can cause eczema in humans, that hardly sounds like the sort of thing that is good for bugs and insects either.
For some families in the region, that reasoning is good enough. They have been used either whole or sliced, and on their own or in conjunction along with lemon and chestnuts.
Hedge apples are most commonly used in this way to repel spiders, and are placed along with any lemons and chestnuts in the basement.
The only problem with this theory is that there is no scientific evidence to back it up. If you’d like to try it yourself, there’s certainly nothing stopping you. (There definitely isn’t a rush of people clamoring to eat hedge apples instead.)
It is true that, in limited cases, chestnuts paired with peppermint oil were somewhat effective at repelling a couple types of spiders. Even so, however, researchers at Iowa State University have found hedge apples along with lemons to be completely useless in repelling spiders.
The best that can be said about hedge apples in terms of their pest repelling powers is that those same researchers found that some compounds within the fruit are able to repel cockroaches.
That said, left intact, a whole hedge apple was nowhere near as effective. Chances are you don’t have the time, tools, or patience to carefully extract the right compounds from the hedge apple, and even if you are able to do so, would you really want to be bothered when affordable cockroach traps and repellent are readily available?
Okay, so they’re unpalatable, will give you horrible stomach pain, and while after lots of effort they may repel a cockroach or two, they’re certainly not the magical pest repellent old wives’ tales purport them to be.
Is there anything that hedge apples are actually good for besides being unique balls of curiosity which, upon further examination, only become more and more distasteful, literally and figuratively?
If you are absolutely dead set on putting the hedge apples near your home or in your yard to use somehow, there may be a couple of highly limited options to consider.
For one thing, the woody branches and trees from which they grow is considered to be hard and durable. On the one hand, this has nothing to do with the actual hedge apples themselves.
However, unlike the hedge apples, this wood might actually be useful, if you’re willing to go through the trouble of cutting it down and using it as lumber for furniture, fences, and other things.
Archers looking for wood for their bows have spoken highly of this wood as well.
At the University of Kansas, research has been done looking into ways of breeding these trees for landscaping and ornamental purposes. However, this research also eschews hedge fruit, either cutting it out or minimizing their messy parts.
In that same vein, some people have taken to selling hedge apples as home decorations.
What About Getting Rid of Them?
By this point, your curiosity in these intriguing fruits may well have turned to irritation – and not just because the liquid from hedge apples can sorely irritate your skin and stomach.
The apples themselves don’t seem to be good for very much, and even the wood that grows on the trees producing them will likely take a while to chop down and use. What if, quite understandably, you decide all of that is simply not worth your time?
Might you just be better off getting rid of them altogether?
Here again, however, hedge apples prove as stubborn as they are potentially frustrating.
While products such as Floren and Snipper can be used to keep other trees such as sweet gum trees in check, preventing them from producing pointed seed balls, there is no evidence to suggest this would be effective on hedge apple trees.
Planting trees without the full set of reproducible organs can help stop them from breeding.
If you already have these trees in your yard, you may be stuck simply cutting them down. Alternatively, you might try spraying leaves rather than the branches to kill the tree slowly.
That said, the wood itself may be left standing for years, and anyway, a tree dying a slow death is hardly a good look for your yard.
Hedge apples are certainly a curious-looking, initially-intriguing fruit.
It’s just a shame they are not, to date, a more useful one.