‘Hardy’ tree survives

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 22, 2007

MURFREESBORO – What many citizens here might suspect is a lemon tree may leave them with more than just a sour taste in their mouth.

A “lemon” tree growing adjacent to Ace Hardware in Murfreesboro on Main Street has drawn the curious, tempting them with its golf ball sized, fuzzy, yellow fruit.

However, closer inspection of the tree reveals something a little more sinister. Like something out of a Harry Potter book, the tree bears just as many thorns on its branches as it does citrus like globes.

This is no ordinary lemon tree.

In fact it is no lemon tree at all, rather a Japanese Hardy Orange, according to Hertford County Cooperative Extension Agriculture Agent Byron Simonds.

“It’s a wicked, wicked tree,” said Simonds, referring to the tree’s thorns that can get up to three inches long.

Simonds said the fruit the tree produces is just as malevolent.

“It’s extremely bitter,” he said. “It will turn your mouth inside out.”

The Japanese Hardy Orange hides behind many aliases. It’s also known as the Bitter Orange or Mock Orange or Trifoliate Orange. If you’re feeling fancy you can call it by its scientific name, Poncirus trifoliata, or you can simply call it the Hardy Orange.

Information provided by Simonds shows the Hardy Orange tree, a member of the Rutaceae family, can reach four to 10 feet in height.

Living up to its name, the Hardy Orange can grow in Zones 5-9 and survive temperatures as low as -20 degrees Fahrenheit.

In the spring the tree produces vibrant white flowers that contrast against the dark green, trifoliate leaves.

By early fall those flowers evolve into yellow modified berries, which contain a sour pulp and numerous large seeds.

According to the North Carolina Cooperative Extension web site, the tree is included on a list of poisonous plants in North Carolina.

Oil and saponic glycoside are listed as the toxic principal in the fruit and can be transferred through the skin and when the fruit is digested.

Symptoms include severe stomach pain, nausea and skin irritation with prolonged contact.

Despite its daunting status, the severity of the poison only causes low toxicity minor skin irritation lasting only a few minutes.

Marmalade can be made from the pulp and the skin of the oranges can be candied.

The Hardy Orange is native to northern China and Korea. It was believed to have been introduced to the United States in the early 1800s.

Simonds said some people in the area have retrieved the seeds from the fruit and planted it in their yards.

Those people were soon in for a surprise.

Simonds said once people saw the tree’s true nature, they cut it down.

“It’s not recommended for people with children or pets,” he said.

Though the Hardy Orange’s motives seem ominous, the tree’s owner, Bynum Brown, remembers family members using the fruit to make a sweet concoction.

Brown’s great-grandmother, Louisa Vaughan Boyette, and grandmother, Ella Boyette Pearce, made marmalade out of the bitter oranges.

“As a boy, anything tasted good on a biscuit,” he said, trying to recall the marmalade flavor.

Brown also shed light on how old the tree is as he was told Louisa purchased the Hardy Orange in 1890.

“A lot of people have been fascinated by it,” he said.

Wayne Futrell with Ace Hardware can testify to Brown’s statement.

He said with the tree’s abundance of fruit this year, a lot more people have inquired about it.

Curiosity got the better of Ace Sales Employee Joey Gee when he was able to pluck one of the oranges from its thorny branch.

Gee bit into the pulp; going against Futrell’s warning that it would make him sick.

Three weeks later, Gee said he never felt ill after his sampling.

He compared the orange to “sour, tart candy” with a “little lemon taste.”

Proving if it looks like a lemon, taste like a lemon, it just may be a Hardy Orange.