Iowa Chemist Turns Nuisance Fruit into Spendy Cosmetic Oil

Nov 4, 2015

Before modern fencing, farmers planted rows of hedge shrubs to keep their animals on their property. Today those hedges are considered a nuisance. Cows can choke on the fruit shed by the bushes, and while some believe hedge apples repel spiders, hedge balls have widely been considered useless.

That’s until chemist Todd Johnson from Burlington discovered the seeds from the fruit contain some of the same anti-inflammatory properties as aspirin and some of the same antimicrobial properties as penicillin.

“This was a family story of folklore meets science. My grandfather used to tell me that if they would cut open hedge balls and rub them on scrapes and it would heal them. So, that’s where it started. He asked me to investigate while I was in grad school. The idea always stuck with me,” he says.

When we first told them we wanted to buy them, a lot of farmers thought it was a prank. - Todd Johnson

Johnson is paying farmers $180 a ton for the hedge balls, higher than what farmers are getting this fall for their corn.

“When we first told them we wanted to buy them, a lot of farmers thought it was a prank,” he jokes.

He uses the seeds to manufacture a cosmetic oil and a line of vegan self-care products called Pomifera. The namesake of the product comes from the scientific name for the hedge shrub. During this hour of Talk of Iowa, Johnson talks with host Charity Nebbe.

Pomifera oil sells for $85 per half ounce. 

Kate Black, author of the new book Magnifeco, also joins the conversation. She’s trying to bring attention to the chemicals and fragrances we absorb through our skin by using products like shampoo, make-up and soap. She urges consumers to read labels.

“Companies can hide 4,000 different chemicals under the word ‘fragrance’ because its considered a trade secret.”