Marah fabacea

Botany Photo of the Day work-study student Claire Fadul wrote today’s entry:

Damon Tighe (Damon Tighe@Flickr) of Oakland, California took this exquisite photograph of Marah fabacea in Fremont, California, and shared it via the Botany Photo of the Day Flickr Pool. Thank you Damon!

I found Marah fabaceus, a native of California, a fitting remembrance of my recent trip to San Francisco for reading break (Marah fabaceus var. arestis is the specific Bay Area variety). This photo certainly evokes the warm, sunny, early spring weather I experienced there and the abundance of blooming flowers all over Golden Gate Park. I wouldn’t be surprised if I glanced over one of these around the city as this perennial begins growth in December and flowers as early as January!

Being in Curcurbitaceae, which is also the family containing pumpkins, melons, and gourds, Marah fabacea is the most common of seven species in this genus of wild cucumbers (also called manroots). Wikipedia states that its wide range–nearly the entire span of California–encompasses that of all other native species of Marah in California, and hybrids between species are relatively frequent.

These wild cucumbers have a number of interesting structural features from roots to leaves, and were commonly used by the native peoples of California. For example, the seeds inside the fruit were once used as beads for jewelry or ground down for a cosmetic mascara. The roots of Marah fabacea (aptly called manroot due to their tuberous and fleshy appearance resembling that of a human foot), aid the plant after fires by sending up young shoots when surface vegetation has died. Here’s a whopping one I found, by photographer and landscape architect Paul Furman.

Marah fabacea is monoecious and the delicate flowers that can be seen in the photo are male (from what I can tell with my limited knowledge) due to their bunching structure. The female flowers are borne on a single stem and a spiky ovary is visible below the flower (i.e., it is epigynous). This small spiky ovary will eventually become the cucumber-like fruit. Sadly, Marah fabaceus does not produce a pleasant snack–the prickly fruit is poisonous.

Daniel adds: Regarding the name, some excellent references state Marah fabacea (International Plant Names Index, Tropicos, GRIN), while others suggest Marah fabaceus (The Plant List, USDA PLANTS database, and most others). I chose the former, as that seems to be the originally published name.

Marah fabacea

16 responses to “Marah fabacea”

  1. Sébastien

    Nice photo, i love cucurbitaceae.
    If somebody can found some seeds, i’m very interrested !!

  2. Vicki

    The link to the photo of the root is absolutely worth checking. What a monster!!!!
    Thank you!!!!!!!!

  3. Michael Simpson

    The name Marah fabaceus is used in the Jepson Interchange, and a masculine gender would seem to agree with the other epithets, e.g., Marar macrocarpus. I have heard the wild tale that the rootstock can be as big as a Volkswagen Beetle!

  4. eva

    That’s an amazing root – does anyone know if it’s edible?

  5. wendy

    Are you sure about the poisonous? Or is it just bitter? It looks very much like bitter gourd and I see where the word ‘Marah’ supposedly comes from a Hebrew word for bitter. That would be the same as the Arabic ‘murr’ I guess (coffee without sugar,e.g.)- the word from which comes ‘Myrrh’.

  6. L.O.


  7. Tiiu Mayer

    The monster example of the root does NOT remind me of a human foot! And the comment about a root the size of a VW Beetle seems quite possible after seeing the ‘monster’. Clearly, we would all love to hear more about this delicate plants not so dainty foot.

  8. Margareta Sequin

    The roots of Marah (wild cucumber) were crushed by natives and thrown in creeks to stun fish. Marah roots contain soapy – and bitter- substances called saponins. They cause hemolysis of red blood cells, namely in the gills of fish. The low dose stuns fish but does not affect humans. Yet, I would not eat manroot….
    Thanks for the great pictures!

  9. Eric in SF
  10. Claire

    Yes! Thank you Eric (in SF) thats exactly the pictures of the flowers I was looking for- hard to describe…

  11. Daniel Mosquin

    Michael S: this is from GRIN’s comments re: Marah: “Comment: although Kellogg originally (1854) used masculine gender, he later (1863) corrected this to feminine, which is the classical gender of the Hebrew name (fide Prof. Avinoam Danin, pers. comm. to K. Gandhi on 14 Feb 2011).”

  12. elizabeth a airhart

    this is one big foot one would want to put in one’s mouth

  13. elizabeth a airhart

    excuse i meant to say this is one big foot one would NOT put in
    ones big mouth thank you great picture and write up

  14. Eric in SF

    Daniel – until Jepson changes to fabacea, it’s going to be hard to convince a lot of people, particularly those inside California. That reference is put on a really high pedestal in these parts.

  15. Barry

    In highschool, I worked with a native plant restoration group and one of our tasks was collecting seeds. This was one of the plants we collected seeds from. I remember the pods being interesting spiny balls. The spines are stiff and if grabbed the wrong way they can give you a good stick, but they’re soft enough they won’t cause the kind of damage grabbing a stiff spined cactus would. I have a vivid memory or wiping my mouth while I had some of the residue from the seeds on it and tasting how incredibly bitter it was.
    One the fruit dries and splits open the seeds are revealed. If you are lucky, you can find one with four seeds developed which looks quite interesting. Normally we’d find one or two and maybe three seeds developed with an aborted, smaller seed in one of the chambers.

  16. Daniel Mosquin

    I had occasion to look back at this entry, and I note (re: the commentary about the gender of the epithet) that the latest edition of Jepson now uses Marah fabacea.

Leave a Reply