It happens every fall; I walk up from a cave tour and come across a group waiting for their tour. One of them sees my uniform and name tag and comes to me with a question mark floating over his or her head. As the guest says, “I have a question for you,” others in the group lean in. It seems they also would like to hear the answer to the forthcoming question. Having been through this for many autumn seasons now, I already have a pretty good idea of what the question is going to be. I respond, “What’s your question?” and the guest says, “There are these little. . .green. . . things on the ground that look like. . . monkey brains or something. What are they?”
These “monkey brains” are one of the two tree features that inspire questions each fall at Lost River Cave, the other one is a long brown pod that is often described as looking like an old banana peel. I’d like to shed a little light on these fall ground decorations and the trees that produce them.
First of all, the “monkey brains” the fruit of a tree known as the Osage Orange (Malcura pomifera). The fruit is often referred to as a hedge apple. This tree was used profusely as a hedge row tree both for the purposes of being a windbreak as well as a cattle fence before the wide availability of barbed wire. I have heard it said that to build an Osage Orange hedge, you dig a trench, line up the hedge apples in the trench, cover them, then walk away. The shoots of this tree can grow 3-6 feet in a single year, so before long you had a thick hedge row with twisted intertwining trunks. Making it especially useful as a fence are its short, stout spines present on the branches. The fruit is not poisonous and can be eaten by humans, but, and I’ve not tested this myself, apparently it tastes absolutely awful. When exposed to frost the taste improves and becomes “cucumber-like” which to me is still absolutely awful, but to each his/her own. The wood has been considered very useful. It resists rot, has a tight grain, and is dense therefore it makes excellent tool handles, tree nails, and fence posts. It is also an excellent wood for making bows. In fact the French name for the tree is “bois d’arc,” which means “bow-wood.” The fruit of the tree was long believed to be a repellent for spiders and insects, and studies have found that an extract from the fruit indeed is an effective insect repellent.
Our other interesting tree is easy to spot once you know its distinguishing characteristic. That would be the gigantic, sharp, scary looking thorns that emerge from the trunk of the Gleditsia triacanthos, or “Honey locust.” In the past, the thorns have actually been used as nails. The wood of this tree is very high quality, but isn’t used often, probably because people don’t like working with a tree which has thorns that can puncture tractor tires. The seed pods that catch people’s eyes on the trails this time of year are where the “honey” part of this tree’s name come from. They contain a thick, green, very sweet pulp inside that was used as food by Native Americans and can be fermented to make beer. The seeds in the pulp have even been roasted and used as a coffee substitute.
No wonder the tree is covered in thorns larger than my hand. It has fruit growing on it that can be made into both beer and coffee.
So, that’s a wrap on the two most asked about trees at Lost River Cave. Come on down and get acquainted with them for yourself. We have wonderful nature trails to hike, and while you’re here, take a cave tour as well.