Matrimony Vine

I was flipping through an old book about the Oregon desert the other day when a photo caught my eye of a vine climbing up the side of an old cabin.

The caption beneath the photo said, “Homesteaders’ wives needed something green in the middle of the gray desert.” 

Of course the photo was black and white, but the description went on to state that most women planted a matrimony vine. 

Matrimony vine? 

Although I loved the name, I’d never heard of it. 

A quick search revealed matrimony vine is also known as Chinese Wolfberry, Chinese Boxthorn, Himalayan Goji, Tibetan Goji. The deciduous shrub has roots that go back to Japan, Korea, and China. 

As the book I was reading stated, homesteaders who were trying to make a living in the sagebrush-dotted desert lands longed for a spot of color, something that would grow with minimal attention and water.  Many of them found what they were searching for with the matrimony vine. 

I could so easily picture a hardworking farm wife dumping her dishwater on the plant, eager to keep it green and growing in the sometimes harsh desert climate, especially those found in the dry interior of California, eastern Washington and eastern Oregon. 

Legends state a newlywed couple would plant the vine at their homestead to bless their marriage.

Matrimony vine was also a “pass along” plant that could be easily dug up and shared with others. Can’t you just see a mother digging up a bit of her beloved plant to share with her daughter when she wed?  The “lifted and gifted” plants seemed to thrive amid the desert climate.

Another way the plants came to America where with Chinese workers. The berries, popularly known as Goji, have been used for centuries by the Chinese in teas, as dried condiments, additions to stews and soups, as well as for medicinal purposes.

Waves of Chinese immigrants began arriving in San Francisco in the 1850s, and with these immigrants came components of their native culture, including the Goji berry. Tens of thousands of immigrants arrived, escaping poverty and civil war in China, initially bound for the gold fields of California. As they journeyed throughout the west for work, the Goji berry traveled along with them.

Today, stands of matrimony vine mark where homesteads long ago lost to time, fire, or other causes, once stood. The shrubs can also be found growing near old Chinese cemeteries.

Sadly, the plants have become host to the potato psyllid which is related to aphids and secretes a toxic saliva during feeding that causes great harm to potato plants. 

During my growing up years on our farm, we had one of these plants growing out behind our milk barn near the shed where we bottle fed calves. I had no idea what it was, but each spring, it burst forth with beautiful purple blossoms and each autumn, bright red berries begged to be picked. My mother told me it was poisonous and to leave it alone. Now I’m kind of wishing I’d plucked a few of those berries anyway. 

And there you have it, how matrimony vine came to be an invasive plant in the Pacific Northwest!

If you close your eyes and envision a homesteader dutifully keeping alive a plant in the midst of dirt and sagebrush, what do you picture?  

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After spending her formative years on a farm in Eastern Oregon, hopeless romantic Shanna Hatfield turns her rural experiences into sweet historical and contemporary romances filled with sarcasm, humor, and hunky western heroes.
When this USA Today bestselling author isn’t writing or covertly hiding decadent chocolate from the other occupants of her home, Shanna hangs out with her beloved husband, Captain Cavedweller.

35 thoughts on “Matrimony Vine”

  1. Great blog. I picture Iris’s, where I live is basically desert and my Iris’s Are faithful friends in my yard. Hope you have a great day, Sweetie! ???

  2. Very interesting blog! I picture Bougainvillea’s being a housewives pride and joy! Such a heat tolerant beautiful plant that originated in South America. A fun little fact about me, I used to work for my uncle and he had a plant nursery. We sold mostly annuals but dabbled in some perennials, Bougainvillea’s being one of them.

    • Oh those are beautiful plants, Stephanie. I bet them did bring many a housewife joy. How fun you used to work with your uncle at his nursery. I think that would be so fun!

  3. Very interesting post. I don’t know that I have ever seen this vine anywhere before but then again I could have seen it and just not paid attention to it.

  4. I have never heard of the matrimony vine but I love that it could be shared. I picture roses, I guess because they are my favorite flower.

  5. I’ve never heard of the matrimony vine,either. I love the concept though! I picture black and white everywhere surrounding the luscious green matrimony vine. The only real color in my minds picture is the matrimony vine. It really stands out to me.

  6. Shanna, this is so interesting. This is something new to me although I have heard of the Goji berries. They would sure add a splash of color to the dreariness of the dry land.

  7. Interesting info! When it’s real photos in history book and not made-for-TV movies where everything is bright and glamorous you can see just how bleak things looked. I’m sure the farm wives wanted to do whatever they could to brighten it up.

    • This is a very interesting blog! I have never heard of the Matrimony vine either but like Linda Broday I have heard of the Goji berry. Something that I did see last year when I was in Spanaway, Wa that I don’t see here is some type of fir or pine tree. There were several of them in my brother’s yard. The reason I say it was a pine is because of the cone/seedpods that was on it. So many different plants there from here.

  8. I’m another one who never heard of “matrimony vine”. My mother-in-law had what she called silver lace vine another deciduous plant that requires pulling off the trellis and trimming back every year, way too much work for me. But, it grew and still does where today it doesn’t even have the benefit of dishwater only water off the roof of the old house. What we see near old homesteads here in central Washington’s dry climate are old yellow roses and sometimes lilac bushes or maybe a lone locust tree. It is amazing how any of them have survived.

    • I’m looking up silver lace vine, Alice. I bet it was pretty! Yes, we see yellow roses and lilacs and locust trees in our neck of the woods, too. Love those old yellow rose bushes!

  9. I never heard of the matrimony vine. I do remember what We called a maypop vine that had a green round fruit looking thing and when squeezed it would literally pop and inside were seeds coated in a sweet jell like substance

  10. Welcome Shanna, ohh what a wonderful post. Sigh, if I close my eyes I see all kinds of things happening with this plant. A mother educating her daughter about the plant and showing her how to take care of it and what to use the berries for. They are having a grand time in the kitchen together. My mind just kinda takes over. LOL

  11. Shanna, thank you for this information. I’ve never heard of this vine either but it sounds like a wonderful tradition. I like the fact that it didn’t cost anything to share the love of the family with their daughters or sons.

  12. I am a bit late catching this but what a cool article. You find the most interesting things Shanna.

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