Friday, October 24, 2008
The wild cucumber is a native plant found in the eastern half of the U.S. This particular specimen was spotted by Katharine Endicott on October 19 in the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in an open area near the Greenough Land. The plant is an annual, and the leaves were already gone but the seed pods caught her eye.
Name. The wild cucumber’s scientific name is Echinocystis lobata. It is a member of the gourd family, the Cucurbitaceae, along with all the more familiar species of cultivated melons, pumpkins, squash and cucumbers, but is the sole member of its genus.
The genus name, Echinocystis, describes the fruits. The name is coined from the Greek ekhinos meaning hedgehog and the Latin cystis meaning bladder. The species epithet, lobata, refers to the lobed leaves. The plant is also known by the common names wild mock-cucumber and balsam apple.
Distinguishing characteristics. This time of year you will most easily notice the remains of the “cucumbers” which by now have lost their flesh and their green color, leaving behind straw-colored papery pods covered with spines.
Except for the spines, they look like little loofahs about two inches long and an inch wide. They are spaced along the vine about six to 12 inches apart and hang down like a string of Chinese lanterns – cooler than a cucumber. Up close you also notice the very fine tendrils which sprout from the main stem in groups of three and coil themselves around anything in the vicinity. Earlier in the season you would see large leaves with three to seven triangular lobes, and greenish-white flowers. The plant has separate male and female flowers.
Uses. The vine is not a “valued garden specimen” according to Wyman’s Gardening Encyclopedia, and the cucumbers are not edible but the plant grows so quickly – about 20 feet in a season – that it can be used as a green screen to hide unsightly objects. In Great Meadows it was climbing over a rambly, brambly hedgerow. You could say it was hogging the hedge, which is not something that hedgehogs do. The spines on the seed pods are soft but the fibers are tough. I brought some pods home in order to identify the plant and ended up using them to scrub the sink.
Sources. Common Wildflowers of the Northeastern United States, Carol H. Woodward & Harold William Rickett; Wyman’s Gardening Encyclopedia, Donald Wyman.
Foraging. It is not too late in the season to still be finding Autumn Olive (Mosquito archive for September 14, 2007) which is usually found in September and early October. The fall issue of Edible Boston has three recipes for Autumn Olive and I can say that two out of three of them ain’t bad. It is also not too early to be finding Oyster Mushrooms (Mosquito archive for November 29, 2002). ∆
Please send your ideas for topics for this column to firstname.lastname@example.org, or better still, write the column yourself. It should be about some species living in Carlisle and found in the wild.
© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito