2007-10-19 / Beauty in the Backyard

The Original Mystery Plant

Photo by John Nelson Photo by John Nelson The Mystery Plant comes from the Botanical Garden in Munich, which devoted a large section to economically useful plants. The mystery plant is a vine and useful for Oktoberfest.

It is a perennial species extremely variable and native to various parts of the temperate northern hemisphere. It grows wild in thickets.

A number of different species have been recognized, and they are frequently difficult to tell apart. Botanists are unsure of the proper relationships of this plant. It is considered to be a close relative of marijuana and has been allied to elms and stinging- nettles.

The mystery plant is a twining vine, occurring as male or female individuals. The stems are tough and scratchy and equipped with stiff hairs that make climbing easier.

The leaves are scratchy and rough. They are handsome, long- stalked, dark green, and deeply lobed. Female plants produce axillary clusters of tiny, nondescript flowers. They are crowded together into tight, cone- like affairs that feature a number of overlapping bracts.

The male plants don't seem to be worth much except for providing pollen. It's the female flowers, when fully mature, that are of economic interest.

The bracts of the female flower spikes are heavily invested with a variety of bitter- tasting compounds, mostly isolated in tiny glands on the bract surfaces.

The ripe cones look like slightly elongated brussels sprouts. When dried and properly cured, they are aromatic and resinous and used in beer- making. It's a complicated and old process. The mystery plant has been cultivated for over a thousand years.

The mystery plant doesn't have anything to do with fermentation, but it's extremely important in the modern brewing industry, which is why it's grown in the Genussmittel section of the garden.

Dr. John Nelson is the curator of the USC Herbarium. To learn more about the Herbarium, call 777-8196. The

department also offers free plant identification.


Return to top