The Truth About the Tree That Grows 'Brains' and Scares Small Children

The Osage orange goes by many names, including green brain, monkey ball and horse apple. JIANG TIANMU/Shutterstock

On our farm just along the edge of a country road, there was a tree that grew brains.

At least, that's how the strange fruit appeared to my sister and I as kids: Fist-sized balls of tightly packed gray-green noodles. In autumn, they thumped from the tree, often landing on the road — where cars smushed them into pulpy stains.

My dad got it into his own brain to build a rickety fort in that weird, old tree. Everything he built was just a little rickety. But the tree was strong. And you eventually got used to the view of brains hanging from branches, and others scrambled and rotting on the ground below.

For years, my sister and I never saw another "Brain Tree." Considering the house it grew in front of was thoroughly haunted, we figured it was just another creepy part of the scenery. Why shouldn't a farmhouse that terrified us with faces pressed against windows, footsteps in the attic and hallways that breathed heavily not also boast a tree that grew brains?

Family posing in front of house.
My sister and I were sure this house was haunted. And the 'tree that grew brains' was just part of the spooky scenery. Anke van der Laan

But this week, many years after gleefully leaving the house behind, I finally learned the tree's true name.

It's an Osage orange tree, otherwise known as a bodark.

Cindy Shapton, a gardener and author who lives in Tennessee, wrote about her passion for "brains" in a recent newsletter.

Interestingly, one of the fruit's aliases is "green brains."

"They do look like brains when you see them on the ground and can create an especially gory scene after being run over by a vehicle," Shapton writes.

She goes on to note that "green brains" or "monkey balls" or "mock oranges" are an underappreciated fruit. While some claim green brains are outright inedible, Shapton says there's a way to get one inside your body — though it sounds like a grisly process, fraught with peril. First, you have to tear away the slime-covered husk. Then there's the matter of plucking all those stubborn seeds — the brain noodles — from the ball they cling to. And there's a chance that along the way you might get some brain goo on your skin and develop a rash.

What does it taste like, you ask? I don't know. It's not going anywhere near my mouth.

Bugs may feel the same way, as monkey balls have gained a reputation as a natural insecticide. Squirrels, however, seem to really enjoy them. But squirrels are weird in a lot of ways.

Osage oranges in a crate.
Eating a green brain may be possible. But it takes a little work — and plenty of courage. Africa Studio/Shutterstock

On the other hand, the fruit's odd aesthetic may add some welcome quirk to home and garden decor.

"I love to decorate with this green wrinkled fruit, the color and texture add interest to fall decorations," Shapton writes. "Combined with pumpkins, gourds, winter squash, pinecones, nuts, berries and leafy herbs they are sensational and are always noticed."

Nurseries, she suggests, may occasionally carry young bodarks. Some U.S. supermarkets have them. Or you can find a tree and harvest its brains yourself, if you dare.

Traditionally, Arkansas is the heart of bodark-ness, with the trees flourishing in almost every county. But they're also common in many states, including Texas and Oklahoma. The tallest Osage orange tree on record, an ancient specimen in Red Hill, Pennsylvania, reaches some 65 feet.

The bodark even grows in parts of Canada. Notably, in front of the big, scary house in Effingham, Ontario, where I grew up.

But the tree itself is much more than the sum of its fruit.

It's named for its legendary strength. Bodark comes from the French "bois d'arc" which means "wood of the bow." The Osage Indians of the American Southwest used to rely on its limber, using the tough branches to craft their bows.

Tree tunnel of Osage trees at Sugarcreek Metro Park
The spikes from an Osage orange tree, or bodark, are strong enough to puncture ties. arthurgphotography/Shutterstock

During the American Civil War, soldiers built barricades from its thorny branches. And farmers today still use its sturdy, decay-resistant branches for fences.

As Texas rancher Delbert Trew notes, "A well cured bodark post can last for over 100 years unless destroyed by prairie fire."

Maybe my dad somehow figured that out when he built a fort for me in a bodark — as a counterbalance to his shaky construction skills. And also, maybe I would have prized that old brain tree more had I known of its fortress-like qualities.

No ghost could get to 6-year-old me when I was in the sheltering embrace of the old bodark tree.