Unicorn plantBotanical name: Martynia louisianaPronuciation: mar-TIN-e-ahFamily: Martyniaceae...


Unicorn plant

Botanical name: Martynia louisiana

Pronuciation: mar-TIN-e-ah

Family: Martyniaceae (Marynia)

Origin: Delaware to Indiana, south to New Mexico

Class: Annual

Display period: Summer

Height: 2 feet

One of those plants with an extra bonus, the unicorn plant, or devil's claw, produces some of the most curious pods around. The pods, which are hooked on the end and turn hard and woody when mature, split open when dry to create an image of a bird-like figure with a long curved beak. The pods -- said to last "forever" and the chief reason for growing the plant -- can be crafted into fanciful creatures, or used unaltered as natural ornaments.

Preceding the fruits (suitable for pickling when young), are 2-inch-wide flowers. My blooms were white, although occasionally, I'm told, they are violet or yellowish. Picture a petunia that's large and floppy and irregularly lobed, and you'll have some idea of what the blossoms are like. The plant is rather sprawling as well, giving the impression that it is weighted down by its large, heart-shaped leaves, which, like the stems, are covered with sticky hairs.

In some references, (but not seed catalogs, which seem to prefer the Martynia designation), the unicorn plant is listed as Proboscidea louisiana. The genus names may be different, but the species remains the same. The reason for not changing the species name too, says Peter Loewer, in whose book, "The Annual Garden," (Rodale Press) the unicorn plant appears as P. louisiana, is that Louisiana was most likely the site of the plant's discovery.

Proboscidea derives from the Greek word for nose, an allusion to the proboscis-like projection of the fruit.

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