Monthly Archives: October 2014

At Midnight, Your Coach Will Turn in to… Marah

If Cinderella lived in Washington State, her fairy godmother might have warned her that her coach would turn—not into an orange pumpkin—but to a green, spiny, bladdery-inflated, modified berry.

Green fruit of Marah oreganus

Fruit of Marah oreganus. Photo by Ben Legler. All rights reserved.

And, in time, according to the Flora of the Pacific Northwest, it would dry, bust open at its tip, and reveal fibrous netting inside.

Quite a tricked-out ride!

That would be Cinderella’s limo if her fairy godmother was determined to use the Washington native plant, coastal manroot (Marah oreganus) for her coach. This perennial vine is our only native in the cucumber or gourd family, the Cucurbitaceae.

Farm stands, farmers markets, and grocery stores are filled with pumpkins and squash in October. For a fun romp through the diversity of these edible squashes, visit the post about Cucurbita Squash Diversity on the Botanist in the Kitchen blog.

Pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) and watermelon (Citrullus lanatus) have specimens in the University of Washington Herbarium, but I haven’t heard any reports that they are naturalizing. I like to think the watermelon plant, collected near a campfire ring, was the result of a watermelon seed spitting contest.

Long section of Marah oreganus fruit.

Longitudinal section of Marah oreganus fruit. Photo by Ben Legler. All rights reserved.

Here in Washington State, our flora’s squash relatives are bitter, invasive, or both.

Our native rep, Marah oreganus, grows at low elevations west of the Cascades, from British Columbia to California. It trails over the ground or clambers up into trees or shrubs, clinging with spiraling tendrils.

With common names like bigroot, coastal manroot, manroot, old man-in-the-ground, and Oregon bigroot, I think we can get a pretty good picture of what is going on underground.

Unlike garden squashes, melons, and cucumbers, Marah is perennial. Above-ground parts die back but re-sprout from that big ol’ root every year.

The name of the genus, Marah, means bitter in Hebrew, and by all accounts that is how the plant tastes. Some sources indicate that it is poisonous too. West Coast indigenous peoples report using the root as a salve or other concoction for skin problems or rheumatism.

Our flora has a non-native invasive cucurbit, too. In southeastern Washington, white bryony (Bryonia alba) has become established. On the Washington Flora Checklist website, Curtis Bjork is quoted:

It’s killing Crataegus (hawthorne) all over the Palouse and has been aggressively spreading for decades. In some places it grows so robustly, it resembles pictures of those monster non-native vines in the SE states, like kudzu (Pueraria lobata) and Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica).

Unlike Marah and many other cucurbits, bryony has small berries. They are black and poisonous. Despite this toxicity and despite being classed as unsafe for both people and livestock, white bryony has quite a presence on the Web as an herbal medicine.

The Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board has classed white bryony as a Class B weed. As a non-native species with a distribution that is—so far—limited in Washington State, preventing establishment of populations in new areas is a primary goal. Where it is already growing, the local weed board decides what course of action to take.

White bryony also has a humongous root, which allows the plant to come back each spring. The Palouse Prairie Foundation page on this weed shows a picture. They say that the root can weigh up to five pounds (!) and that it can grow a foot and a half long.

Sounds like trouble, but apparently the root is its most vulnerable part. Cutting deeply through the crown of the root—and constant vigilance against re-sprouting—is one suggested method of control.

Since Cinderella’s fairy godmother is unlikely to come on the scene, it’s up to us to work on controlling white bryony.

Have you had any encounters with white bryony or with Marah?