Most gardeners are happy to tolerate thorny plants for the sake of their flowers (e.g., roses and bougainvillea) or fruit (lemons). Wildlife lovers appreciate the benefits of growing the cockspur thorn (Maclura cochinchinensis) for its habitat benefits. Found growing naturally from Milton in south-eastern NSW to Cape York, this plant either forms a vigorous climber in shady positions or a dense shrub in the open sun. In its natural rainforest environment, the main indication of its presence is the dropped fruit on the forest floor. As a climber or a shrub, the thorns help to brace the branches together or to a supporting tree. As with all thorny plants, the thorns evolved to protect the plant from large herbivores.
The mid-green adult leaves are oblong to elliptical in shape and reach 10 cm in length although the juvenile leaves are much smaller. Like the related figs and mulberries, the cockspur thorn has a milky sap and edible fruit. In this plant, the globular fruit are orange-yellow in colour, sweet and juicy and appear after summer flowering. Cockspur thorn has separate male and female plants with fruiting depending upon the presence of both. The fruit is sought after by a variety of birds and lizards. Being thorny, the plant makes an ideal nesting space for small birds, like wrens and finches, that are protected from predators. It is a host plant for the common crow butterfly (Euploea core).
Whilst probably not an ideal plant for small gardens, those with a large space or on acreage would find benefits from growing the cockspur thorn. Clipped as a hedge, it forms a protective barrier around, for example a vegetable plot or chicken run, some remnant rainforest or a revegetation area. In America (and in early Australian settlements), a similar plant, the ‘osage’ orange (Maclura pomifera) was grown around paddocks to retain horses and cattle – a job suited to the cockspur thorn. It is an ideal lantana replacement plant in addition to being a fire-retardant. Research into medicinal uses has shown that the cockspur thorn contains a powerful anti-herpes simplex virus component.