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February 26
1923 - U.S. release of Charles Chaplin film "The Pilgrim," partially shot at Saugus Train Station & Newhall First Presbyterian Church [watch]
The Pilgrim


Let's Go Outside | Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Feb 26, 2015

evelynevandersande_mugWhat if there were a popularity contest for a native plant? If such a thing existed, I am pretty sure the wild cucumber would win first place handily.

This plant seems innocent enough and always takes visitors on the trails by surprise. The schoolchildren coming to Placerita have many comments each time we take them walking on the trails.

The fruit offers a particular fascination. “What is that? Is that a nest?”

When the fruit is nice and green, it looks especially scary with all of those sharp points, and you have to take it gingerly between your fingers to avoid being stabbed. When it is summer and the fruit is dried out, it looks strange, indeed. The sharp points are dry, but large seed chambers have opened up. Each entrance to the chambers are opened up large, curved upward, and look like nothing else around. The seeds are large and brown and also seem disproportionate to the gentle and innocent light-green vine that appeared in the winter.

wildcucumber2 However, even in the winter, this vine has an attitude of its own. After the first rain, the wild cucumber starts to grow. I would not say it does that mildly. The vine grows extremely rapidly with an exuberance that is not matched by another plant in the middle of the winter. I am pretty sure growth could be monitored from day to day to see a remarkable increase. As the vine is lightweight and grabs at any nearby branch for support, it is a sign that spring will be here again, even if we are in the middle of the winter.

The wild cucumber, or Marah macrocarpus, is also known as manroot or bigroot. It is not related to the cucumber we eat. It tastes bitter, and this is how it found its name. “Marah” means bitter in Hebrew.

“And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah; for they were bitter: therefore the name of it was called Marah.”

However, when people start speaking about the wild cucumber, it is all of the little side stories that they are excited about – and there are many of them.

wildcucumber3Californian Indians used the wild cucumber for many purposes. One interesting story is how they used to fish with the wild cucumber seeds and tubers. It was not really fishing but more a way of stupefying the fish and then being able to pick them up out of the water when they would float to the surface. They would mash the fruit and the root and add it to the water; the fish would float to the surface, and this is how the fishing was done. Of course, the fish was not poisoned; otherwise it would have been inedible. It was just a temporary effect but very useful.

Which, of course, brings us to the point: “Do the seeds contain a hallucinogen?” If you start a sentence like this in a presentation, you can see your audience perking up, becoming alert and suddenly very interested.

In the 1960s, several children in Ojai showed symptoms of severe hallucination, and it was learned they had been nibbling on seeds of the wild cucumber. At this time, there is no information of the exact chemical nature of the hallucinogens (similar components to LSD).

Right away, I want to warn you strongly not to try anything foolish. In a normal year, it is almost impossible to determine what somebody could tolerate and what would kill him. This year, the danger is even greater as increased effects are related to the drought we are experiencing.

cucumberWe have found many plants that can be eaten without any problems during years with a normal amount of rainfall, but they simply must be left alone this year. Otherwise, you could end up with strong GI tract distress and maybe even more dangerous problems. This is noticed even for plants that are not poisonous, so you can only imagine the concentration in the flesh of a seed that starts out being a hallucinogen.

The seeds (roasted and ground) were used to make pigments for rock art by Native Americans and might have been used from time to time by the ladies as eyeliner.

The dried, spiky fruit can be soaked in water so all of the spikes fall off and then it can be useful as a loofa. The tuber contains saponins, which is a natural soap, so this was a useful plant for the Chumash.

Then there is this name that makes your imagination run wild: manroot, Old man in the ground? Where is that coming from? What does it mean? The root is large – very large and shaped vaguely like a human. Some large tubers can weighh up to 100 pounds. Sometimes, newly exposed tubers can be seen along road cuts or eroded slopes. They have a tan-colored surface with a vague resemblance to a mummy shape that strikes the imagination.

Wild-Cucumber-VineMuch gentler are the flowers that emerge soon after the vine grows, making them really the first bloom of the season.

They are small and white, and yet again, very interesting. The male flower is part of a cluster of blossoms on a long stem (with pollen) and the female flower is a single flower (with an ovary). Individual flowers can be male or female, but both sexes can be found on the same plant. The pollen of the male flower can fertilize the female flower on the same plant. That is a fantastic advantage for reproduction done by insects or wind. Since both flowers are close together on the same plant, Marah are termed “self-fertile.”

We already discussed the fruit covered with prickles, bright green in the spring turning yellow in the summer. But how do the seeds germinate? The fruit usually holds at least four large, smooth brown seeds. They will fall to the ground, and animals will eat many of them, but some will remain there until the first rain comes. The initial shoot emerges from the seed and grows down in the ground, holding the seed in a favorable environment. That same shoot will then divide in half, one part going down into the ground, and the other part reaching for the sun and becoming the first vine.

There is much to learn about the wild cucumber. It is a lovely, crazy and wild plant. It always makes me joyful when I discover this tender new vine covered in blossoms in the dark days of winter.

 

Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 28 years. She lives in Newhall.

Comment On This Story
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4 Comments

  1. K Pfalzgraf says:

    Thank you Evelyne. I really enjoy your work.

  2. Sam Townsend Sam Townsend says:

    HEY THATS THE THING I FOUND

  3. I believe it’s a Cucamonga Manroot, a wild gourd cucumber of sorts.

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