Today’s featured plant is Wild Cucumber, Echinocystis lobata.
Wild cucumber is also known as Balsam Apple, Prickly Cucumber, Wild Balsam Apple, Wild Mock Cucumber and Lace Pants. The term “lace pants” comes from the appearance of the dried fruit.
Range and Identification of Wild Cucumber
Wild cucumber is native to North America, and can be found throughout much of the US and Canada, extra for certain areas in the southeast, southwest and extreme north (see map). It prefers wet areas with some shade, including deciduous woods. We normally find it growing in low lying parts of our prairie area, but this year because of the drought there weren’t as many plants as usual.
The plant is an annual vine, flowering in summer and fall and setting fruit that resemble small, very prickly cucumbers. They are not related to garden cucumbers, Cucumis sativus, although today we did find a cucumber beetle in one of the fruits.
Wild cucumber vines reach from 2-10′ (60-300 cm). The leaves are large and lobed, resembling maple leaves in shape. The stem is square, and like garden cucumbers, it has curling tendrils that allow it to grasp and climb. It readily overgrows trees and shrubs.
The flowers are small, white and very fragrant. Wild cucumbers have both male and female flowers. The male flowers emerge in round clusters about 4-8″ (10-20 cm) across with individual flowers 1/2″ (1 cm) wide. They have six thin petals. A single female flower is found at the base of a male flower stalk.
The fruit of the wild cucumber is a single, large, spiny pod-like container, roughly 2″ (5 cm) long. According to Wildflowers of Wisconsin, it smells and tastes like a garden cucumber, but will cause stomach upset and diarrhea. DON’T EAT THIS PLANT! As it ripens, it dries to a paper-like husk and the blossom end opens and dumps four seeds out of individual chambers. (See Wildflowers of Wisconsin for more information.)
Wildlife Uses of Wild Cucumber
Illinois Wildflowers states that the wild cucumber flowers are visited by several species of bees, flies and wasps. I have not found any reference to wildlife eating the seeds.
Medicinal Uses of Wild Cucumber
Natural Medicinal Herbs states, “The pulverized root is used as a poultice for headaches. A very bitter tea brewed from the roots is analgesic and is also used as a love potion. It is used as a bitter tonic for alleviating stomach troubles, kidney ailments, rheumatism, chills, fevers etc.” They also mention that the seeds have been used as beads.
As always, any medical information is for informational purposes only. Always exercise caution when using any wild plants and make sure you have positively identified the plant.
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Mountain Rose Herbs stocks many of the herbs and plants featured in the Weekly Weeder series. They also carry an assortment of bottles, droppers and other supplies, plus some really soft organic cotton t-shirts.