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Wild Cucumber – (Echinocystis lobata) – Good or Bad?

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Wild Cucumber (Echinocystis lobata) festoons the landscape with fragrant flowers from midsummer into fall. We’ll share photos and tips for identification, and answer some common questions about this rowdy wild neighbor.

Wild cucumber vine, leaves and flowers

Wild cucumber is also known as Balsam Apple, Prickly Cucumber, Wild Balsam Apple, Wild Mock Cucumber and Lace Pants.

Plant Photos and Identification

Echinocystis lobata is an annual vine, setting fruit that resemble small, prickly cucumbers. It’s a member of the gourd family (Cucurbitaceae). They look similar to bur cucumbers (Sicyos angulatus).

They are not closely related to garden cucumbers, Cucumis sativus, although we did once find a cucumber beetle in one of the fruits.

Echinocystis lobata vine

It prefers wet areas with some shade, including deciduous woods. We normally find it growing in low lying parts of our prairie area. In wet years, it cascades along fence lines and roadsides.

Vines

Wild cucumber vines can grow up to 25-30 feet long. The large leaves have five palmate lobes, resembling maple leaves in shape.

Echinocystis lobata leaves

The stem is square, and like garden cucumbers, its tendrils coil outward from the leaf axils to allow the plant to grasp and climb. It readily overgrows trees and shrubs, but rarely does serious damage.

Flowers

Flowers appear from mid-summer into fall and are small, white and very fragrant. Wild cucumbers have separate male and female flowers on the same plant. They are self-fruitful.

wild cucumber flowers

Fruit

The fruit of the wild cucumber is a single, large, spiny pod-like container, roughly 2″ (5 cm) long. There are four large seeds in individual chambers.

Echinocystis lobata fruit

As it ripens, the fruit dries to a paper-like husk, which opens at the bottom to eject the seeds. The name “lace pants” comes from the appearance of the dried fruit.

dried Echinocystis lobata fruit
Lace pattern starting to show on dried wild cucumber fruit

(See Wildflowers Of Wisconsin for more information.)

Are wild cucumbers safe to eat or poisonous?

While they may look and smell like garden cucumbers, wild cucumber fruit is not safe to eat. It causes stomach upset, diarrhea, and even burning reactions for some people. Handle the fresh fruit with caution.

Are wild cucumbers poisonous to dogs, too?

Yes. Don’t let curious pets eat the fruit.

What is wild cucumber good for?

The flowers of wild cucumber smell wonderful (at least to me), and the fruit is ornamental. Some people train the vines over a fence or pergola.

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, but they have been used as beads.

Echinocystis lobata seed
wild cucumber seed

Is wild cucumber invasive?

While fast growing – the vines can reach 30 feet in a season – the vines are native to North America. They are not an invasive species in the U.S. and Canada.

That said, they can grow crazy fast and smother trees and shrubs. If you don’t want wild cucumber in an area, it’s best to pull or cut the plants when they are small. Don’t let the fruits mature, or they will open up and spread more seeds.

wild cucumber fruit - Echinocystis lobata

Medicinal Uses of Echinocystis lobata

Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs states:

American Indians used the extremely bitter root tea as a bitter tonic for stomach troubles, kidney ailments, rheumatism, chills, fevers, and obstructed menses. Also used in love potions and as I general tonic. Pulverized root poultice for headaches.

This post is for informational purposes only and is not intended to treat or diagnose any illness. Always exercise caution when using any wild plants and make sure you have positively identified the plant.

This post is #37 in the Weekly Weeder Series.

More Wildcrafting and Foraging Information

Recommended Resources:

You may also enjoy other posts in the Weekly Weeder Series and Herbs and Wildcrafting, including:

For more in depth plant studies, consider The Herbal Academy.

They have a Botany and Wildcrafting Course that covers in depth information on 25 common wild plants.

Botany & Wildcrafting Course by Herbal Academy

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Weekly Weeder at Common Sense Home - drying herbs

Originally posted in 2012, last updated in 2020.

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37 Comments

  1. We had wild cucmber show up a couple of years ago at our garden. They are rather interesting! We were pretty disappointed to find out that we couldn’t (shouldn’t) eat them but my daughter has had fun using them for crafts anyway. She makes some really adorable little men from dried wild cucumbers. You can see a picture of one in a recent post of mine about decorating for fall: http://proverbs31living.blogspot.com/2012/09/decorating-for-fall.html

  2. ” Wild geranium” starts of the article…is that another name for it? Neat little plant. Too bad its you can’t eat it. Love you site! Thanks for all your research.

  3. My husband’s grandmother calls this plant “Jenny Creepers”. She gave us some seeds many years ago, they come up all over the place! I don’t mind as the birds eat the seeds. I agree it is disappointing to learn they aren’t edible for human food. Interesting plant though! 🙂

  4. please do not eat the seads almost killed our dog!! very poison!! said 4-5 seads can kill a person!! be very careful!!!

    1. I’ve eaten them before, dunno why u would feed em to a dog tho O_o
      I actually even had a sort of craving for them while collecting them.

  5. I ate about 1/2 a teaspoonful on 2/11/15 and almost died. I vomotted non stop for about 3 hrs followed by diarrhea. Today is 2/27/15 and I still feel sick from it. I’m having an endoscopy and colonoscopy on 3/2/15.

  6. I went looking for plant information on this plant as my dog found an old seed pod and brought it on to the porch to play with…. Several hours later she came down with diarrhea in the night, she is fine today ( the next morning )….. So be careful of this ” wild cucumber plant ”
    pretty to look at but very invasive and the spines hurt if stuck by one. I live in southern Ca. thanks for the site!

  7. Aha! Mystery solved. Won’t be eating this! Apparently it can get quite invasive. Will be pulling this spring.

    1. In “Weeds: Control without Poisons”, the author notes that large seeded annual broadleaf weeds like wild cucumber are best controlled by increasing soil fertility. Believe it or not, they thrive in poor soil. I’d consider mulching or top dressing the area where they are with compost. For short term control, we just pull them down if they start getting too crazy smothering a tree.

    1. I’ve noticed that the wild cucumbers are abundant in our area this year, too. I’ve seen more this year than any year I can remember. They seem to like the weather. Lots of goldenrod this year, too.

      The plant is an annual, so it must start new from seed each year. If possible, cut it back or pull it before it seeds out. Most weed seeds can persist in the soil for years, even decades, waiting for the right conditions to germinate and thrive. This was that year for wild cucumber.

      You can use commercial or homemade weed control sprays or other options (https://commonsensehome.com/natural-weed-control/), but they will affect the surrounding plants as well. There’s nothing species specific that I have found.

    1. I haven’t found wild cucumber listed in the dozen or so lists of plants toxic to cattle that I searched. Usually they will avoid a plant that’s toxic, unless there is absolutely nothing else to eat.

      1. I’m in Southern California and most of the pods get to be the size of baseballs – smaller on younger vines but on the ones that come back year after year they are really big. My goats and sheep will eat the leaves and they don’t seem to bother them

  8. Can humans eat the leaves? I ate a small one. It was very sweet. Absolutely delicious and had no adverse reaction. That said it was only the size of 3 quarters.

    1. According to a comment on the Minnesota wildflowers website post about wild cucumber, leaves and growing tips are edible.

      “The fruit is NOT edible, but the tender leaves and tips ARE and they taste great stir-fried. Many Asian people living here eat them and even sell them, as they resemble Ivy Gourd (Tindora) plants in appearance and taste. You can sometimes catch hawkers selling them at the Como Market farmer’s market. In fact, I just had some stir-fried with a little garlic and salt last week and it was euphoric.”

  9. I had the great idea of pulling off all the wild cucumber pods and covered the picnic table with them. Could have covered the two benches as well, but the Mrs. didn’t see the fun in it as I did. Now the idea is just control the spread to areas I don’t want them. I took them away before they matured, so I stand a chance for success. Did you also notice they contain a sort of oily residue in them? What’s with that?

    1. I haven’t handled them much, since they grow in the more wild areas of the property. The only oil reference I readily found was from The Nature Collective, which noted: “The oil from the seeds was often used to reverse baldness; chemicals in wild cucumber have pharmacological activities similar to chemicals used in modern baldness treatments.”

    2. So I ate a bite of a fruit tasted terrible and spit it out right away yesterday, today my stomach hurts real bad and and cant eat, what can I do to make the symptoms go away? If there is anything,? Again I didn’t swollow anything but tummy hurts so bad!!

      1. I take it you read the “not safe to eat” part of the post after it was too late?

        Given that eating it is not advised, I haven’t heard of anyone treating the result.

        Some options I would consider:

        Charcoal capsules, to absorb any residual toxins.

        Plantain, externally and internally, for the same reason, and to draw down inflammation. That’s plantain the weed, not the banana-like thing. You may be able to find it growing in your yard or garden.

        You can check out plantain remedies here – https://commonsensehome.com/grandma-called-it-medicine-leaf/

  10. I wonder about other wild plants in the yard. There’s jewel weed which grows right next to the poison ivy and is actually the antidote to it. There seems to be an orange flower and a yellow flower variety. Ther is what is called pokeberry that I wonder about. Is there anything on wildflower remedies? I see the thing on poisonous plants. Not sure if it is the same thing.

    1. I’m not sure I understand the question.

      Yes, jewelweed can be found in yellow and orange variations, and often grows near plants that cause irritation, like poison ivy or stinging nettle.

      I don’t have an article on pokeweed on the site yet, because I haven’t spotted any on our land or nearby. I know poke leaves and shoots were eaten as a cooked spring green. The berries can be eaten if cooked. There is some risk to eating the plant.

      Ohio State University notes:

      Research with humans has also shown that common pokeweed can cause mutations (possibly leading to cancer) and birth defects. Since the juice of pokeweed can be absorbed through the skin, contact of plant parts with bare skin should be avoided. Symptoms of poisoning from common pokeweed include a burning sensation in the mouth, salivation, gastrointestinal cramps, vomiting and bloody diarrhea. Most people and animals recover within 1 to 2 days if only small quantities are eaten. If large quantities are consumed, more severe symptoms can occur, such as anemia, altered heart rate and respiration, convulsions and death from respiratory failure. The primary toxic compounds are thought to be oxalic acid, saponins (phytolaccotoxin and phytolaccigenin) and an alkaloid (phytolaccin).

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