St. Michael’s Cemetery is 88 acres of manicured ground, and is an island of calm in the middle of Astoria. Unlike Calvary, St. Michael’s is a nonsectarian burial ground, and exhibits the legendary diversity of populations – for which Queens is renowned worldwide – within its loamy depths.
Despite being surrounded by highways and the antics of the neighborhood, it’s a very quiet place. People jog along its roads, ride bikes, or like me – just come here to take a contemplative walk once in a while.
From St. Michael’s:
St. Michael’s Cemetery is situated in the borough of Queens in New York City. Established in 1852, St. Michael’s is one of the oldest religious, nonprofit cemeteries in the New York City metropolitan area which is open to people of all faiths. It is owned and operated by St. Michael’s Church, an Episcopal congregation located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
The original property for St. Michael’s Cemetery was purchased in 1852 by the Rev. Thomas McClure Peters and occupied seven acres. Over the years St. Michael’s gradually acquired additional land to its present size of approximately eighty-eight acres. Because it was Dr. Peters intention to provide a final dignified resting place for the poor who could not otherwise afford it, areas within the cemetery were assigned to other free churches and institutions of New York City. These areas are still held for the institutions they were assigned. As a service to its diverse constituency, St. Michael’s continues to this day provide burial space for individuals and families from all classes, religions and ethnicities. St. Michael’s reflects the demographic and historical trends of New York City. Walking through the older sections of the cemetery, you will find burials representing the 19th and early 20th century immigrants.
On one of these solitary walks, I discovered an odd fruit which had fallen onto the loam.
About the size of an orange, or large apple, the ruggose skin of the fruit had a sickly yellow-green coloration. Abundant, the fallen spores were obviously in season. Ignorant of the specificities of arborial lore, research of North American cultivars suggested that this sort of ovum was typical of an Osage Orange – Maclura pomifera to those in the know.
Osage-orange, Horse-apple, Bois D’Arc, or Bodark (Maclura pomifera) is a small deciduous tree or large shrub, typically growing to 8–15 metres (26–49 ft) tall. It is dioeceous, with male and female flowers on different plants. The fruit, a multiple fruit, is roughly spherical, but bumpy, and 7–15 cm in diameter, and it is filled with a sticky white latex sap. In fall, its color turns a bright yellow-green and it has a faint odor similar to that of oranges.
Maclura is closely related to the genus Cudrania, and hybrids between the two genera have been produced. In fact, some botanists recognize a more broadly defined Maclura that includes species previously included in Cudrania and other genera of Moraceae.
Osajin and Pomiferin are flavonoid pigments present in the wood and fruit, comprising about 10% of the fruit’s dry weight. The plant also contains the flavonol morin.
Recent research suggests that elemol, another component extractable from the fruit, shows promise as a mosquito repellent with similar activity to DEET in contact and residual repellency.
An important plant to the Native American cultures, the Osage Orange tree produces wood which is dense and fibrous, ideal for the body of a bow. It is one of the highest rated “fuel woods“. Resistant to insect and fungus, Osage wood is also prized for use in fenceposts. It grows in the form of a dense thorned thicket surrounding the central trunk, and produces its “orange” which is largely passed over by mammalian scavengers like squirrels and raccoons.
Prized by horses and mules (hence horse apples), the original range of the tree was confined to the southwest, but its value as a hedge plant and naturally replenishing cattle fence was instrumental in it being planted all over North America.
The Osage-orange is native to a small area in eastern Texas, southeastern Oklahoma, and southwestern Arkansas. This region was also the home of the Osage Indians, hence the common name of Osage-orange. White settlers moving into the region found that the Osage-orange possessed several admirable qualities. It is a tough and durable tree, transplants easily, and tolerates poor soils, extreme heat, and strong winds. It also has no serious insect or disease problems. During the mid-nineteenth century, it was widely planted by midwest farmers, including those in southern Iowa, as a living fence. When pruned into a hedge, it provided an impenetrable barrier to livestock. The widespread planting of Osage-orange stopped with the introduction of barbed wire. Many of the original hedges have since been destroyed or died. However, some of the original trees can still be found in fence rows in southern Iowa. Trees have also become naturalized in pastures and ravines in southern areas of the state.
Like all fruiting plants, an animal conspirator is required to complete the life cycle of the Osage Orange, expanding its range via the digestive processes of a ranging forager. Ever efficient, nature would not waste its time producing an energy rich fruit that attracts no living animal to it.
According to some, the presence of this fruit in proximity to your belongings will actively discourage insectivorous activities as well as providing other benefits.
Osage-Orange is a native tree coming from a relatively small area in eastern Oklahoma, portions of Missouri, Texas and Arkansas. While used for centuries by native Americans in its original area for war clubs and bows, it was the first tree Lewis and Clark sent back east from St. Louis in 1804. Yet, with that modest beginning, the Osage-Orange probably has been planted in greater numbers throughout the United States in the 19th and early 20th century than almost any other tree species in North America. Because of its value as a natural hedgerow fence, it made agricultural settlement of the prairies possible, it then led directly to the invention of barbed wire in 1874, and then provided most of the posts for the wire that fenced the West.
Theories abound as to the identity of this partner organism, and an extinct North American Equine is one of the possibilties theorized to have played this role for the Osage (thought likely due to the browsing preferences of modern European imported Horse and Mule populations).
An intriguing notion is put forth by Connie Barlow of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, who offers the theory that the anachronistic fruits produced by the Osage Orange’s were fed upon by a partner animal which was in fact the long extinct North American Elephant — the Mammoth.
You never do know what you’re going to find when you take a walk in Queens, bring your camera always.
Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman lives in Astoria and blogs at Newtown Pentacle.