New York, New York

The Broccoli That Fell From the Sky

October’s bounty includes apples, blackberries, and something half brain, half vegetable. On a New York City sidewalk, discovering a fruit for a mastodon.

Credit: Kirsten Pauli

In October, at the edge of Carl Schurz Park along East End Avenue near 85th Street, heads of broccoli fall from the sky and land on the sidewalk.

Or at least that’s what the kids thought they looked like; to me they looked more like lime-green brains, each about the size of a baseball. Clare and David liked to kick them up the hill on their way to school: broccoli-soccer. On the way home, one good kick could roll a broccoli-brain downhill for nearly a block. After a few kicks they started to break open, revealing a juicy whitish interior of close-packed lobes, all tapering toward the center.

We had never actually seen them fall. Come October they just appeared, on the sidewalk, in the gutter, under the euonymus bushes behind the iron fence that edges the park. Every year we looked up, failed to see them hanging from any nearby branches, shrugged, and continued on.

But last October, suddenly, we wanted to know what they were. Clare was nine, a budding botanist who had spent chunks of her summer in a friend’s garden in the Berkshires, picking string beans, weeding tomato plants, and measuring the corn. When the first ball of broccoli appeared, six-year-old David whooped and kicked it, but Clare bent down when it stopped rolling and examined it. And I, with two kids in grade school at last, had the time and space in my head to look closely, too. I peered up into the branches above, and wondered.

This is when it’s nice to have an old friend who’s a professor of forest ecology. Within the hour she sent back a photo: Was this what the kids were kicking around? A disembodied hand held a perfect bright-green broccoli-brain, larger than life. “Osage orange,” said the caption.

Or hedge-apple. Or monkey ball, horse-apple, brainfruit. The fruit of the Osage orange tree, Maclura pomifera, a member of the mulberry family, sometimes called bow-wood, because the Osage Indians prized its tensile strength for making weapons. Native to the Red River region of Texas and Oklahoma, it’s also called “bodark,” from bois-d’arc, which is what the French called it when they began to trade with the Osage in the early 18th century.

We had tripped over some green lumps on East End Avenue and landed in Texarkana. The Osage hadn’t lasted there, no match for the righteous juggernaut of manifest destiny, but the trees remained and helped white farmers settle the Great Plains. Homesteaders planted them as windbreaks and pruned them to grow wide instead of tall, creating living boundaries. A good hedge was “horse high, bull strong, and hog tight”: higher than a horse could jump, stronger than a bull’s charge, and woven so densely that a rooting pig couldn’t squeeze under it. The thorns at the base of each leaf gave the hedge the restraining properties of barbed wire.

Some scientists believe that Osage oranges, like avocados and persimmons, are anachronisms: big fruits that evolved to tempt big animals.Which hadn’t been invented. When it was, just after the Civil War, barbed-wire fences soon replaced the high-maintenance hedges, but the hedge-apples weren’t done yet. The wood of the Osage orange tree is impervious to termites and slower to rot than almost any other species of North American timber. Fences need fence posts, and the Osage orange provided millions of them. It has been planted in every state in the Lower 48. Including at least one healthy specimen in Carl Schurz Park.

Which we still hadn’t actually found. I consulted websites and field guides, studied leaf shapes and bark descriptions, and stopped repeatedly at 85th Street to stare up into the canopy while pedestrians edged around me. The ground at that part of the park slopes steeply to the sidewalk—perhaps the tree was deeper into the park than I had realized, and the fruit was bouncing downhill when it fell. I detoured into the park and studied the trees from the other side. Smooth-edged leaves, tapering to a point…orange fissures in gray bark…grows up to 50 feet… And then I saw it. Taller than I had expected, asymmetrical, with branches snaking crazily in spirals and suckers shooting straight up from the trunk. I stood staring up again, grinning this time. I felt like I should introduce myself.

But what about the hedge-apples themselves? Aside from the ones Clare and David kicked into oblivion, they all just sat there under the bushes, shriveling and turning brown. Sometimes a squirrel would pick at a smashed one, halfheartedly. But fruit evolved as a bribe: You spread my seeds, and I’ll provide lunch. Why produce such outlandish fruit if no one’s going to eat it?

Well, maybe someone used to. Some scientists believe that Osage oranges, like avocados and persimmons, are anachronisms: big fruits that evolved to tempt big animals, now extinct. The end of the Pleistocene epoch 11,000 years ago was the end of the megafauna, the mammoths and mastodons, giant sloths and glyptodonts on whose herbivorous appetites many plants depended. Without those species to propagate their seeds, the ranges of many plants drastically declined.

By the time European traders reached Osage territory, highly prized bow-wood trees grew only near the Red River, which may explain why archeologists have found evidence of great wealth among the tribes that lived there. But once ranchers recognized the tree’s usefulness, first as a hedge and then for fence posts, its propagation problems were over. The Osage orange had found a replacement for the vanished megafauna: us.

The hedge-apples themselves aren’t completely useless, though. People swear by them as citrus-scented spider-repellants, scattering them around house foundations and in basements and cupboards. More than one website sells them in season. Martha Stewart has included them among her fall decoration ideas. This fall I want to gather a few and put them in a bowl on our coffee table. I don’t mind spiders. I just like to think about cattle ranches, and windbreaks, and twanging bowstrings. And mastodons.

It’s nearly October again. No falling broccoli yet, but the twisted trunk with the orange highlights is a familiar friend now. I stopped at 85th Street the other day and squinted upward. It took me a while, but the crick in my neck was worth it: I finally spotted the pale green fruit hanging high (and whole, and un-kicked) among the leaves. Tomorrow on the way to school maybe we’ll find a couple on the ground. Maybe this year we’ll even see one fall. And meanwhile, with the help of sharp-eyed Clare and eager David, I will make the acquaintance of more trees.