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Meet the Martynia

This unusual plant, also known as “unicorn plant” and “devil’s claw,” has the flavor of okra and morel mushrooms. Read about how to grow martynias, how to cook them, and why they’re called “devil’s claw.”

| June/July 2008

  • Martynia
    Martynias are versatile and easy to grow.
    Photo by Rob Cardillo
  • Martynia Pods
    Martynias are not bothered by pests or wildlife, thanks to the musky slime they exude.
    Photo by Rob Cardillo
  • Pickled Martynias
    Martynia pods make excellent spicy pickles
    Photo by Rob Cardillo
  • Martynias' Sharp Hooks
    The sharp hooks of martynias’ dried seed pods gave the plant its nickname of “devil’s claw.” The seeds inside taste like sunflower seeds, but you may need pliers to get them out.
    Photo by David Cavagnaro

  • Martynia
  • Martynia Pods
  • Pickled Martynias
  • Martynias' Sharp Hooks

The martynia is an old-time garden curiosity very much unrecognized for its culinary merits. You might call it the okra lover’s Holy Grail because the martynia has the flavor of okra, only intensified, and sometimes with an undertone of the highly rated morel mushroom. Also, the interesting hooked shape of the baby pods lends them to all kinds of culinary applications, from stir-fries to pickles (see recipe, below). Considered a tropical annual, the plant is very easy to grow in most parts of the country and is not bothered by pests or wildlife.

Officially, the plant’s common name is martynia. Though it is sometimes referred to as the “unicorn plant,” the nickname most often used is “devil’s claw,” particularly on the Gulf Coast and in the Southwest where the plant is endemic. The colorful moniker refers to its dried seed pods, which are large, black, and have sharp hooks that latch on to clothing or animals. The label “martynia” came from Carl Linnaeus (considered to be the “father of taxonomy”) who named the plant Martynia annua after John Martyn, a professor of botany in Cambridge, England. However, this nomenclature is now considered obsolete. Botanically speaking, there are at least two distinct groups of martynias: the Ibicellae with thorny seed pods and the Proboscidea with smooth seed pods. The first group is primarily South American while the second is found throughout North America.

Of the Proboscidea, Proboscidea louisianica is the species considered native to the Gulf Coast states and the Southwest, and is the subject of this article. You may also see P. parviflora listed — some botanists think that both P. louisianica and P. parviflora are subspecies indigenous to the United States, although I see no difference between them other than flower color, and treat the two classifications as synonyms.

Martynias usually grow to 2 to 3 feet tall. The stems are weak, so the plants tend to topple over if they grow much higher. The leaves are broad, round, and, along with the tubular flowers, remind me of catalpa trees. The entire plant is covered with tiny hairs that exude a slippery juice and a musky odor some people find unpleasant.

The musky hairs act as a deterrent against herbivores that would otherwise readily consume the succulent leaves and small pods hidden beneath them. For this reason the plants are safe from deer, groundhogs or anything else that might otherwise eat them.

While martynias can hold their own against wild animals, they are not people-proof: The seed pods have been part of the Native American diet for centuries. The first American seedsman to sell martynias was Bernard M’Mahon of Philadelphia, who listed the seed in his 1805 catalog. For the colonial elites, it was largely an ornamental raised for its eye-catching flower clusters. In the 1840s, martynias began to show up in cookbooks, mainly in the form of pickling recipes. Since then, they’ve been grown in so many parts of the United States that they have naturalized far beyond their original habitat and can be found as far north as Maine and Minnesota. If tomatoes will grow in your garden, so too will martynias. The plants are hardy and prolific — so much so that in the state of Washington, they are classified as a noxious weed.

paul love_3
7/15/2008 4:44:13 PM

i found your artical entitled or on DEVILS CLAW was quite interesting in july,s edition

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