Q: Are hedge-apples safe for my hens to eat? …Pat Floyd
A: This reader’s question caught my attention because I have Osage Orange trees (also known as hedge-apple, bodark, bowwood and bois d’arc) on my property and, like Pat, I wondered myself if I could supplement the chickens’ diet with the huge amount of fruit these trees produce.
Osage Orange is a native tree to the southwestern United States, but today it can be found throughout much of the Midwest and eastern United States because of its widespread use as a hedgerow during the 1800s. The thicket forming nature of this tree, along with its thorny branches, made it an impenetrable “living fence” and thousands of miles of Osage Orange trees were planted across the Great Plains. Around 1870 the advent of barb wire eventually replaced this natural barrier, but many of the fence posts of this durable wood remain today. The green grapefruit-sized fruit of this tree (often referred to as “hedge-apples) ripens in the fall.
As a Master Gardener, I’m a huge advocate on incorporating native plants into the landscape. I’ve given presentations on creating wildlife habitats and in particular on how to attract native birds to your backyard. Even though it’s enjoyable to put out bird-feeders filled with a variety of birdseed, you can actually attract twice the amount of birds to your property by creating a garden full of their natural food sources; native trees, shrubs and wildflowers. Native trees not only provide shelter and nesting sites for several bird species, but many also have the added benefit of offering a natural food source in the form of nuts, seeds or fruit. Osage Orange trees are native to the United States, but if you’re wanting a tree to attract birds to your backyard, I wouldn’t recommend this one. Other than the benefit the hedge provides as a shelter, the fruit isn’t a particular great food source. According to Richard Jauron (Department of Horticulture-Iowa State University) there isn’t any evidence supporting that hedge-apples are toxic or poisonous, but the bitter-tasting fruit is considered unpalatable by most wildlife. I haven’t witnessed it, but supposedly squirrels will shred the hedge-apples apart in an attempt to get to the seeds (which are the only actually edible part of the fruit).
What’s all this have to do with chickens? I’ve noticed that wild birds and free-range chickens share many of the same tastes when it comes to their foraging favorites; worms, slugs, seeds (grasses, weeds, wildflowers). However, I’ve never observed any wildlife (deer, birds, squirrels) interested in hedge-apples. I figured that if a native bird wouldn’t eat the fruit, a chicken probably wouldn’t either, but that’s just my assumption. So–I introduced my colorful flock of heritage chickens to the two Osage Orange trees on my property. The odd looking fruit of the trees was ripe and ready for my hens’ approval or distaste. Their reaction was as I expected: they weren’t interested… I even tried offering smaller pieces of the fruit and the seeds, but they wouldn’t even peck at the smallest amount.
Chickens, however, aren’t native American birds and all experienced chicken keepers know that a hungry hen can eat the oddest things. This is especially true of chickens that are contained in a coop and run. I’ve noticed that when I don’t allow my flock free access to my property they greet my offerings of leftovers and table scraps with much more enthusiasm than when they can free-range and scratch and peck for a live bug…
With that in consideration, I kept the flock cooped up for a day then presented them with a bowl full of chopped up hedge-apples.–They still refused to even sample the fruit or seeds.
Even after my two unsuccessful attempts at trying to get my flock to eat the hedge-apples, I still had one theory yet to be tested. I know that the fruit of many native trees has to go through several freezes before it’s manageable or even palatable for wild birds to eat. Perhaps if the hedge-apples ripened or soften a little, the chickens would be more interested in trying a bite.
Fortunately I found a homesteader who had actually tested my theory of offering the hens overly ripe hedge-apples as a supplemental food source. I contacted Lais McCartney and she shared her successful experience she’s had with her flock:
We used hedge-apples as a feed supplement for our chickens and ducks last winter around February until March. It worked out very well. If you are familiar with hedge-apples, they are very solid and green when they first fall from the Osage orange trees. We collected hedge-apples and put them around our house foundation (experimenting with the bug repellent nature and knew the chickens would have access to them also) and in large waterproof bins to give out to the chickens and Muscovy ducks when they ran out around the feed area. We noticed that the poultry weren’t interested in them until the hedge-apples started to break down and expose their seeds. When they start to look brown and they are softer, the chickens and ducks both liked them. It helped me to understand why the pioneers paid so much and used these trees as hedges; their fruit can be edible to something on the homestead. I have heard that horses and cows can choke on them, so one must be careful in preventing hedge-apples from falling into a place where curious or hungry cows and horses can get to them. Apparently hedge-apples can even be edible for humans (according to Green Deane’s website); my daughter tried a seed and said it was like eating grass and not real tasty.
Back to the original question: Are hedge-apples safe for chickens to eat? Yes!–And thanks to the information provided by Lais, you’ll probably have the most success getting the hens to eat the hedge-apples if you wait until the fruit ages a few more months.
To see what else is happening on my Southwest Missouri property visit: the garden-roof coop