Saturday, January 24, 2015

Wild cucumber


Soon after the rains, the landscape here in the Santa Monica mountains begins to green up. One of the first winter plants to emerge is the wild cucumber, Marah macrocarpa. It springs vigorously up, stems seeking something to hoist itself up on by its coiling tendrils. The plant can climb twenty or more feet high.

Wild cucumbers have pretty, palm-shaped leaves, and white flowers that appear almost as soon as it springs from the ground. The plant is monoecious, bearing both male and female flowers on the same plant, and it can self-fertilize. The male flowers grow in clusters, while the female flowers grow singly.

The fruit is a round, prickly ball that swells up to the size of a fist, then yellows as it ripens, finally drying and splitting open to spread large seeds.

It's tendrils are fascinating, twisting like little green springs.

Here, a plant has hoisted itself up a wire fence, spangling it with white flowers like a bridal veil.

Another common name is manroot, for the plant's huge tuberous root, which makes it a remarkably drought-tolerant perennial.

Marah macrocarpa is not inedible, but it's very bitter, hence the genus name Marah, which books tell me is Hebrew for "bitter," though google-translate doesn't recognize it. Its juices and a paste made from its seeds can be used to treat pimples or other skin sores.

For me, though, wild cucumber's fresh green shoots and white flowers are a signal that spring is coming.

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