Specimen #20: Wood Rose (Merremia tuberosa)
Elegant and aged, the wood rose capsule is the dowager of the garden. In her youth, she was pretty enough—a tubular yellow flower that was lovely, but hardly memorable—but now, in her senescence, she has acquired a certain noble grace. The sunny callow blossom has been replaced by the vestments of old age—a dried calyx. Polished with a satin veneer, it envelops her seeds in a delicate globe and sweeping cape. It’s a good look, and one for which she is named, and cultivated.
It’s believed that early Polynesian travelers were the ones to give Merremia tuberosa her common name, “wood rose.” Her polished, papery seed capsules resemble a carved blossom—they are fragile, but the variegated macchiato tones give the effect of a fine wood grain. Today, the flowering vine is still cultivated for its faux wood rosettes. Its native range is Central America, but the wood rose has traveled the high seas to appear in dried flower arrangements in India, the Cook Islands, and French Polynesia.
I happened upon the dried capsules on a hilltop in Hawai’i, next to a general store and a canopied ravine. I was waiting for a man with a van to take me on a tour of a village in a valley, when I noticed the cluster of light brown capsules that lay below a vine-laced tree. Many of the dehiscent pods were torn and stained—Indeed! Pity the dowager that withers in a ravine!—though I found this one, a fine specimen that had weathered the elements. Before collecting the wood rose’s seed pod,
I hadn’t really noticed the yellow flowering vine (Merremia tuberosa is in the morning glory family), strewn across the island’s forests, fences, and bridges. For the remainder of my trip, though, the wood rose seemed to be preside along every roadside—a woven wallpaper of younger yellow flowers, and their elder cream-colored rosettes.
It is quite prolific. Merremia tuberosa is considered an invasive species in Hawai’i, and an opportunistic weed in Florida. It grows so well, and spreads so far, because—like all good dowagers, the capsules are adept at promoting their fortunes, as well as protecting their progeny. Cultivated for its pods, the wood rose has navigated its way into a host of new environments, where it is thought that the seeds are casually discarded with the dried bouquet. Once mature, the paper capsules are designed to float, fly, and tumble, thereby dispersing their seeds in a variety of useful ways.
Each pod nurtures four black seeds, nested together like a tiny teacake. Ballooning high on a vine, the airy vessels are perfectly positioned to roll towards new soil, to catch a gust of wind, or to drift along a gentle tide. The seeds occasionally appear along beaches, and more often, they are most likely carried locally via streams and storm runoff. Hawaii is a good climate for all these dispersal mechanisms, perhaps most of all by water. Hawaiians have names for many of their plants, and the wood rose is no exception. They call it Pilikai, which means “close to the ocean.”
Merremia tuberosa pods are often painted or dyed, which seems a shame—their natural grain casts a lovely glow. She is an exquisite specimen, this dowager of the woods: a morning glory in youth, a rose in death.
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