Prickly globes dangle from winding tendrils, surrounded by bright green leaves. A springtime phenomenon, the wild fruit demand attention as they dangle from vines wrapped among the redshank branches throughout the Anza Valley.
Oddly named, the wild cucumber or manroot, Marah macrocarpa is a relative of the garden cucumber, watermelon and squash. Unlike these domesticated vegetables, all parts of the wild cucumber plant are toxic to some degree. It is a climbing and trailing perennial that emerges from a large woody or fleshy underground root that can weigh in excess of 100 pounds. One root, excavated at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Gardens, weighed 467 pounds. It is because of this root that this vine is one of the first plants to regrow after a wildfire.
Wild cucumbers are perennial broadleaf vines that produce distinctive greenish, round to oblong spiny fruit capsules that contain seeds. They grow in open areas in forests, shrubland and riparian habitats throughout much of California to 6,000 feet of elevation. Aboveground growth may die back in the summer if water is limited. Several native Marah species occur in California, including Cucamonga man-root, Marah macrocarpus and Marah oreganus.
These plants have clinging tendrils that climb, entwining shrubs and trees. Each leaf is several inches in diameter and has five to seven lobes.
Tendrils used for anchoring the plant grow opposite the leaves. The white, five-petaled male and female flowers are separate but grow on the same plant. The male flowers appear on specialized stems, and the somewhat larger female flowers from which the fruit develops arise at the base of the stem.
As one of the plant’s most noticeable features, the fruit is a green, egg-shaped gourd that grows up to about 5 inches long and is densely covered with stiff, flattened spines. It is often fleshy and melon-like inside with a rind and a spongy interior. Each gourd contains four to 16 oblong, brownish seeds.
The wild cucumber begins sending up shoots in December and may bloom in January, continuing through April and May. It is a common plant to find in dry areas of chaparral, washes, roadsides and may also be found in coastal sage scrub and foothill woodland environment.
Native American tribes in Southern California used wild cucumber in a wide variety of ways. The Kumeyaay ground the seeds into a black paste that was used for face paint and a topical application of leaves was used to relieve pain and inflammation.
The Luiseño made a grease base for paints out of the seeds, and the Chumash used parts of the plant medicinally and utilized the large, hard seeds as gaming pieces or strung them into necklaces.
Other tribes used the pulverized root or seeds to catch fish. It was discovered that when this powder was cast into rivers or tide pools, it would stun fish and they would float to the surface for easy collection. The oil from the seeds was used to reverse baldness – chemicals in wild cucumber have pharmacological similarities to chemicals used in modern baldness treatments.
There are no records of wild cucumber being used for food. The plant tastes bitter, and all parts of the plant are mildly toxic.
Diane Sieker can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.