A pioneer came to Laramie, possibly with the Chinese immigrants who helped build the railroad through Wyoming in 1867-68.
Native to China
Its name is Lycium barbarum—matrimony vine. Where that common name came from is anybody’s guess, though the fact that it can be hard to get rid of might be a clue.
It is a member of the nightshade family, which includes potatoes, tomatoes and peppers. Native to Asia and southeastern Europe, it is now reported for all but two states (Arizona and Mississippi) according to the authoritative “USDA PLANTS” database. It has long been cultivated in China.
Now established in Laramie, it has proven to be about as hardy as the human stock that founded our community. Unlike the many introduced flowering plants that we enjoy, some consider this one a nuisance. Not everyone agrees with that assessment, which is why it is not one of the “noxious weeds” identified for Albany County or for Wyoming.
Also called goji berry and wolfberry, matrimony vine has been investigated recently as a potential high-value crop for Wyoming. Jeremiah Vardiman, UW Extension Educator based in Park County, says it is one of the crops that might have value for diversifying Wyoming agriculture. “Goji berry seems to be compatible with Wyoming’s harsh climate,” he states.
The berries are reported to have a tomato-like flavor and the market is mainly in health foods; most of the berries now come from China. One website is advertising four one-liter bottles of “Himalyan Goji Juice” for $134.95. No wonder UW is exploring options.
The results of a three-year trial planting of the vine at the UW Experiment Station farm near Powell will be published soon. When cultivated, the crop of berries is much more abundant than those from the scattered blossoms that hedges tend to produce in Laramie. An Internet search turns up scores of articles touting the exceptional nutritional value of what some call the “super berry,” though others point out that many berries provide good nutrients.
Vardiman says that the trial required some effort to control spread by rhizomes. Also, netting was required to keep birds away from the fruit. As a vine, it needs some kind of support to climb, like a fence or a building.
Gardeners find that they are obliged to cut off suckers that sprout in lawns and flower gardens. It also produces seeds. The small purple flowers are attractive to insects in the early summer, and birds like to eat the fleshy red berries that are about the size of cranberries.
The leathery leaves are toxic if you eat a lot of them, says Mary H. Dyer at the “gardeningknowhow.com” website. She reports that it can be purchased in plant nurseries in the southeastern states, though it has “escaped cultivation and is naturalized.” In other words, a gardener should be vigilant.
“It’s nasty stuff,” says Gail Shive, a Laramie gardener who maintains a showplace garden at her home in Laramie’s tree area. “My neighbors and I are constantly cutting back runners and suckers that sprout up all over the place.” It is flourishing in yards of several rental houses in her neighborhood, where absent owners are not paying attention. And, as she points out, it has even grown up inside the walls of several Laramie houses.
“Go away for a while and you have lots to deal with when you return if there is matrimony vine in your neighborhood” agrees Barb Rouse, a member of the Laramie Garden Club. The club helps maintain the Ivinson Mansion gardens. “It has got to be controlled,” Rouse said, as she attacked one long vine strand with her shears that was hiding in a bush at the museum in early August. It has also been discovered on the grounds of the Trail End State Historic Site in Sheridan.
It can be useful
But as Hollis Marriott of Laramie’s West Side neighborhood says, “While matrimony vine is a “weed” when it grows where it isn’t wanted, it can also be a water-wise minimal-care choice in the right context. It has been used to reclaim disturbed sites, for example at the Hanford decommissioned nuclear production complex on the Columbia River. Likewise, it can be an affordable low-maintenance hedge.”
It does well in many climates, including Laramie’s. Sunlight, soil and a support are what it needs. It can’t grow vertically without some support, but a little chicken wire will do. While Marriot says it does need some trimming to look nice, it doesn’t require as much attention as some other types of hedges.
The vine makes an effective hedge partly because it needs almost no care to thrive, and also because the lower and older portions of the stems have thorns. This dense thicket of twigs and thorns discourages would-be intruders—all that is needed is a gate for the homeowner to be quite secure from most nuisance animals.
Likes town life
In July, I led a walking tour of the southern part Laramie’s West Side neighborhood. Matrimony vine formed a nice hedge surrounding two of the oldest houses in Laramie, including the Old Carroll House on Kearney Street, and a house on Railroad Street that has the year “1886” carved in stone in the gable end facing the street. Both these houses and numerous others, particularly in alleys between south 9th and 12th streets in Laramie, probably have had the vine since very early on in Laramie’s history.
I have not heard that it is a nuisance to ranchers and rural dwellers.
A close relative called “nightshade” is found in rural areas of the Northern Great Plains. That plant thrives around farm buildings, especially abandoned ones. Its berries are considered by some to be a real taste treat. When my South Dakota in-laws served me “nightshade shortcake” many years ago, they laughed at how I puckered up and turned down another bite. It is an acquired taste—to call it astringent is an understatement.
Colonizing the church
Matrimony vine also thrives on the grounds of the now-vacant 1885 Scandinavian Lutheran Church at 201 South Pine St., where it receives no additional water and yet was obviously climbing up the interior of the building from plants that were growing under the front door this summer. Someone cut it back in late August, but it has resprouted and is again growing through the siding.
Though not on the National Register of Historic Places, this beautiful old church probably would be eligible if anyone nominated it. However, the new plywood boards covering all windows and front doors now mar its attractiveness.
The original 1885 congregation moved from Pine Street to 7th and Ivinson Ave in 1925. They also changed their name to Trinity Lutheran Church. The old building was sold and is now owned by an Apostolic Church headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, according to the public website of the Albany County Assessor’s office.
The current owners in Omaha sent a representative to Laramie in early September to assess the situation. She spoke with many community members to gather information and arranged for it to be boarded up until a decision is made on what to do with it. The congregation whose sign is still outside the building says “Emmanuel Apostolic Temple,” but that congregation has disbanded and apparently turned the key over to the home church in Omaha.
Controlling the vine
Lindsay Wheat, Supervisor of Albany County’s Weed and Pest Control District, says that there are a few options (mainly herbicides) that can help in controlling matrimony vine. She points out that where it is growing determines what control measures are safe and effective to use—there are different products for use in lawns, near crops, or in utility corridors. She is happy to advise anyone who calls her at 307 742-4469 or stops in at their office at 2919 County Shop Road, south of Laramie.
So matrimony vine may rightly be considered a weed when it sprouts up where the gardener doesn’t want it. And it may be considered beneficial for the privacy, ground cover and sustenance it provides for insects and birds. Maybe a goji berry harvest is in Wyoming’s future. But anyone thinking of planting it as a hedge in Laramie should think twice before proceeding because it can spread without any human assistance once it has roots and seed source.
By Judy Knight
Source: Judy Knight, August 9, 2019
Caption: The old First Scandinavian Evangelical Lutheran Church of Laramie City, Wyoming Territory, 201 South Pine Street. The greenery above the front door is matrimony vine that grew along the foundation, under the door and inside until it poked through the siding. It was cut off in late August, but has grown back in the same place a month later.
Source: Judy Knight, August 9, 2019
Caption: Detail of sprouting matrimony vine on the old church before it was pruned (but it is now growing back).
Source: Judy Knight, September 24, 2019
Caption: Four weeks after cutting back in late August, the vine is again sprouting in the same place as before. Other dramatic changes are that the light fixture once completely hidden is now visible and the church door and all the windows have been covered in plywood
Source: Judy Knight, Sept. 24, 2019
Caption: Detail of a Laramie matrimony vine with a typical single berry, showing the lance-like leaves. When successfully planted as a crop, big clusters of berries can form.