Heirloom Martynia Varieties
Read about growing heirloom martynia, also known as devil’s claw, as well as a few pointers for seed saving.
August 15, 2013
By William Woys Weaver
Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver is the culmination of some thirty years of first-hand knowledge of growing, tasting and cooking with heirloom vegetables. A staunch supporter of organic gardening techniques, Will Weaver has grown every one of the featured 280 varieties of vegetables, and he walks the novice gardener through the basics of planting, growing and seed saving. Sprinkled throughout the gardening advice are old-fashioned recipes — such as Parsnip Cake, Artichoke Pie and Pepper Wine — that highlight the flavor of these vegetables. The following excerpt on heirloom martynia varieties was taken from chapter 21, “Martynia (Devil’s Claw).”
To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom martynia varieties, use our Custom Seed and Plant Finder. Check out our collection of articles on growing and harvesting heirloom vegetables in Gardening With Heirloom Vegetables.
A Brief History of Heirloom Martynia (Devil’s Claw) Varieties
Named for John Martyn (1699–1768), a professor of botany at Cambridge, this tropical annual is now a common weed in several parts of the United States.
Louisiana martynia (Proboscidea louisianica) is considered a native of the Gulf Coast states and the species most closely associated with Cajun cookery. All of the plants belonging to the Martynia and Proboscidea genera were commonly called martinas or martinoes in early American cookbooks. They produce hooked green pods that can be cooked and eaten like okra, or pickled. The flowers, which resemble catalpas, are quite ornamental, and some of the species are fragrant.
Hortus Third (1976, 715 and 912) lists a number of species for both genera, although there is really little difference between them. I take issue with the classifications because I have had several cross. This is most obvious when white-seeded and black-seeded varieties of different “genera” cross and produce pods of mixed seed on the same plant. Since the scientific classifications cannot be trusted, for seed-saving purposes, I suggest growing only one type of martynia during a given season, especially since seed purity can only be ensured with isolations of at least half a mile.
The Louisiana martynia is an annual of easy culture. It was illustrated in 1807 in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (26:1056), although seeds were sent to Paris in the early part of the eighteenth century. It was grown in Europe primarily for its flower, yet in England it rarely sets seed unless raised in hothouses. A dark purple — flowering species from Brazil (color plate 46) was introduced via Mexico in the 1840s under the name Martynia fragrans and has since naturalized in the Deep South and Southwest. For culinary purposes, I recommend it over the others, since its pods are small and tender, and its flower is a cheerful addition to the kitchen garden. The yellow martynia from Brazil, now classified as Ibicella lutea, is presently quite rare in North American gardens. It was illustrated in Edward’s Botanical Register (11:934) in 1825 and was the preferred martynia of our nineteenth-century cooks. The flower is eye-catching, since it is brilliant yellow with red speckling in the throat, admittedly my favorite of them all.
Martynias are cultivated like okra insofar as they will thrive where okra does best. This means that they prefer hot, humid weather and warm summer nights. The plants vary from low and sprawling to tall, erect, branching bushes. All of them have large fleshy leaves covered with minute sticky hairs. The stems, leaves, and young seed pods exude a liquid with a strong musky smell more overpowering than okra. All of the martynias produce seed pods that are edible when young, but many varieties quickly develop a woody core that renders them useless to cookery. As the pods mature, the woody core enlarges until the green shell falls away to expose a black beaklike pod. When the pod splits open, the seeds are exposed. In hot climates, the seed falls to the ground and new plants are started. In northern parts of the United States, seed must be gathered, dried, and started indoors in the spring in order for the plants to come to crop. In Pennsylvania, however, fallen seed often overwinters in the ground and sprouts the following spring, usually in May once the soil has warmed.
The dried seed pods are often utilized in dried flower arrangements, for when they are broken open and spread apart, they resemble odd-looking claws with sharp, curving points. The points can inflict serious wounds and therefore should be treated with respect. In the Southwest, the pods are called devil’s claws, and several varieties are distributed under this name by Native Seeds/SEARCH. American Indians in the Southwest use black fibers from the pods in basket weaving and gather the seeds as food, since the kernels can be eaten like sunflower seeds.
Martynias have either white or black seeds, and I think it would be prudent to divide them into two groups based on this difference. Furthermore, some types hold their flowers high above the leaves while others hide them among the branches. These physical traits do not determine genera, but from a gardening standpoint they provide clues useful in separating varieties. For the most part, the martynias with flowers held above the plants are also the types with small pods useful in cookery. The others produce large pods better suited to basket weaving.
One of the earliest American recipes for pickling martynia pods appeared in Mrs. Abell’s The Skilful Housewife’s Book (1846, 112), but the following instructions are reproduced from an old Maryland cookbook called The Queen of the Kitchen (1870, 200).
Put tender martinas in a strong brine for a week, take them out and drain them, and put them in cold vinegar. To 1 gallon of vinegar put 3 pounds brown sugar, 1/2 cup of allspice, 1/2 cup of pounded cloves, 1/2 cup of black pepper, 2 tablespoons of celery seed, 3 pods of red pepper, pound them all together and boil them in the vinegar and pour it over the martinas. Scraped horseradish is an improvement if added. Keep the jar closely covered and in a dry place.
For the pepper pods, I would suggest the dry pods of Buist’s Yellow Cayenne, Goat Horn Pepper, or Ole Pepperpot.
Find seeds for these heirlooms and more with our Custom Seed and Plant Finder.
Photos and Illustrations Courtesy William Woys Weaver.