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.
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?