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For the morning glories called "manroot", see Wild Potato Vine and Ipomoea leptophylla.
Manroots, Cucumber Gourd
Coastal Manroot
Marah oreganus
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Magnoliopsida
Subclass: Rosidae
(unranked): Eurosids I
Order: Cucurbitales
Family: Cucurbitaceae
Subfamily: Cucurbitoideae
Tribe: Sicyeae
Subtribe: Cyclantherinae
Genus: Marah
Kellogg
Species

Marah fabaceus
Marah gilensis
Marah guadalupensis
Marah horridus
Marah macrocarpus
Marah oreganus
Marah watsonii

Synonyms

Megarrhiza Torr. & A.Gray

The manroots, wild cucumbers, or cucumber gourd (genus Marah) are flowering plants in the gourd family (Cucurbitaceae), native to western North America. They are also commonly called Old man in the ground. The genus name comes from Hebrew מָרָ֔א (mara, "bitter" - e.g. Ruth 1:20), and was given because all parts of these plants tend to have a bitter taste.

Except for the isolated range of the Gila Manroot (M. gilensis) in west-central Arizona and island populations (M. macrocarpus var. major), all manroot species inhabit overlapping ranges distributed from Southern Canada to Northern Mexico. Although Coastal Manroot (M. oreganus) extends inland into Idaho, all other manroot species except M. gilensis are confined to areas within 300km of the Pacific Ocean coast.

Contents

Description

The manroots are perennial plants, growing from a large tuberous root. Most have stout, scabrous or hairy stems, with coiling tendrils that enable them to climb up other plants; they can also grow rapidly across level ground. Their leaves tend to have multiple lobes, up to 7 in some species. The fruits are striking and easily recognised. They are large, and spherical, oval or cylindrical. At a minimum they are 3 cm in diameter, but can be up to 20 cm long, and in many species they are covered in long spines. Both leaf and fruit shape vary widely between individual plants and leaves can be particularly variable even on the same vine.

The anthropomorphic common names "manroot" and "old man" derive from the swollen lobes and arm-like extensions of the unearthed tuber. On old plants, the tuber can be several meters long and weigh in excess of 100 kg.

Taxonomy and systematics

Coastal Manroot (Marah oreganus) fruit
Cucamonga Manroot (Marah macrocarpus) root
Staminate flowers of Cucamonga Manroot (Marah macrocarpus)

Marah species hybridize freely where ranges overlap and this, in addition to intra-species leaf and fruit variability, makes definite identification of specimens a particular challenge.

A proper genetic analysis of marah phylogeny has not yet been undertaken. The standard taxonomy has been based on morphological comparisons and geographic considerations.

Some authors include the manroots in genus Echinocystis. Considered as a separate genus, however, it includes six or seven species, some of them with well-defined varieties within them:

Use by humans

Marah oreganus was used by Native Americans for various problems. The Chinook made a poultice from the gourd. The Squaxin mashed the upper stalk in water to dip aching hands. The Chehalis burned the root and mixed the resulting powder with bear grease to apply to scrofula sores. The Coast Salish made a decoction to treat venereal disease, kidney trouble and scrofula sores.

Tubers of marah fabaceus were crushed and thrown into bodies of water by the Kumeyaay to immobilize fish. The tubers contain megharrhin, a saponin-like glucoside. Saponins lower the surface tension of water allowing the formation of bubbles. It is likely that the substance enters the fish's circulation through the gill arches where only a single-cell epithelium separates the water from the animal’s red blood cells. The affected fish float to the surface (Bjenning 2005).

Like many medicinal plants, at least some Marah species are toxic if ingested and deaths have been reported from ingesting them.

Seeds of Marah fabaceus have been reported as being hallucinogenic. The tubers of M. fabaceus and M. macrocarpus contain saponins which can act as a natural soap.

References

  • Bjenning, Christina A.; Olson, Gary; Bjenning, Isabella; Conlin, Bob; and Fillius, Margaret (November 2005). "Native fishing practices - revisited" (PDF). Torreyana (San Diego, California: The Torrey Pines Docent Society): pp. 8-9. http://www.torreypine.org/Torreyana/0511.pdf. Retrieved 2008-04-21.  
  • Gunther, Erna (1973): Ethnobotany of Western Washington (Revised ed.). University of Washington Press.
  • Pojar, Jim & McKinnon, Andy (1994): Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Lone Pine Publishing.

External links

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