Many people grow Martynias or Devils Claws (Proboscidea louisianica) for the fun of it–either as a curiosity or just for its exotic ornamental appearance. Granted, in spite of their lush tropical foliage, the mature plants can sometimes look a bit rangy; no one has taken to breeding improved strains. Yet the culinary historian in me keeps nagging about a very good opportunity lost: think of devils claws as food along the same lines as okra, which it resembles when cooked.
As a food plant Martynia is just as adaptable as okra with one very superior advantage: deer and groundhogs will wade through an okra patch and nosh it like caviar. They won’t touch a leaf of the Martynias. That’s because Martynias are covered with small smelly hairs that deer find pretty disgusting. So turn tables; use those smelly hairs to good advantage. No need for fencing, no need for fancy deer sprays, and since there are no known pests that attack Martynias, no need for insecticides. This sounds like an organic gardener’s dream to me. And it is if you plan ahead carefully.
Since each plant produces only a handful of pods, you need about 25 to 30 to ensure a decent supply over the summer. Double or triple that amount if you want to sell them as produce. Most garden books will tell you that the Martynia seeds harvested from the mature black pods are as good to eat as sunflower seeds. True, but per plant, sunflowers are a better investment in terms of seed harvest. Martynias are best as young, tender pods and that is how they were first marketed in the 1840s when the purple and pink flowering varieties were introduced from Mexico.
The general rule of thumb when growing Martynias for their pods is “the smaller, the better” because when they begin to mature and develop seeds, the pods become tough and stringy. I have cooked the tiny pods in soups, in stir fries, and even in jambalaya. They easily pass for okra, but when pickled, they stand on their own because their unique shape and texture are preserved, and what amazing comments they elicit when served to guests for the first time!
William Woys Weaver is an internationally known food historian, author, and heirloom gardener living in Devon, Pennsylvania.