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 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.
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.
Wild cucumber vines can grow up to 25-30 feet long. The large leaves have five palmate lobes, resembling maple leaves in shape.
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 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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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
You may also enjoy other posts in the Weekly Weeder Series and Herbs and Wildcrafting, including:
- Recommended Wildcrafting Reference Books
- Chicory – The Coffee Root Plant – Weekly Weeder #5
- Benefits of Dandelion, Plus How to Use Greens, Seeds, Roots & Flowers
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
Please Like, Pin or otherwise share this post if you would like the Weekly Weeder series to continue.
Originally posted in 2012, last updated in 2020.