By Susan Rothrock Deo
Don’t you just love the surprises that come out of the ground after a few good rains here in Southern California? I’m especially fond of the native plants in my yard or along the trails, but wild cucumber is something else! It’s not invasive, it doesn’t starve out other plants, but it is aggressive. It clambers over bushes and low-lying plants, showing off its bright spring green. The vines can grow up to six meters (20 feet) long and even climb trees.
In late winter, after some good rains, wild cucumber plants burst out of the ground, stretch out their bright green vines and anchor their curly tendrils around anything in their path. They have broad leaves of several sizes with five to seven lobes and clusters of tiny white flowers, separate male and female flowers on the same plant.
Despite its name, wild cucumber is not edible, to humans or to most animals. All parts are somewhat toxic, so don’t eat it. Native Americans did use parts of the plant medicinally, though. Also, the root has a substance that stuns fish so they would toss pieces of pulverized root into ponds and streams to catch some dinner. The fruits don’t look much like a cucumber, either. They look more like something Dr. Seuss created: an oval shaped bright green fruit covered with sharp two-inch long spikes. These thorns are curved at the end, reminding me of a fish hook. They aren’t too bad when still green but watch out when they turn yellow or brown. Ouch! Ripe fruits pop open, spilling out about four dark brown seeds. As the seeds begin to grow, one half develops into the tuber, or thick root, the other half pushes to the surface and becomes the above-ground plant.
Wild cucumber is also called “manroot” because the tuber can get huge. One dug up at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden weighed in at 467
pounds! No wonder the vines I pull out of my California lilac every year keep coming back. I wonder how big that tuber is? Because of its root, wild cucumber is one of the first native plants to come back after a fire. The tuber doesn’t burn and stores lots of energy to help the plant grow quickly. It is a common plant of chaparral and is also found in coastal sage scrub and foothill woodland communities.
According to Calflora.org, there are five species of wild cucumber in California. The California manroot or bigroot, Marah fabaceus, is the most common of these and can be found from Northern to Southern California. Marah macrocarpus, Cucamonga manroot, is the common manroot of Southern California and Baja. Wild cucumber seems to “disappear” in the summer. That’s because once the rain is gone and the plants release their seeds, they die back to the ground until the next season of nourishing rain. A great adaptation to life in the “wilds” of Southern California!
Photos by Susan Rothrock Deo