Sep 17 2013
Pumpkins, zucchini, yellow squash, gourds, the members of the Cucurbitaceae family are ripe and ready to eat in North America.
In Pennsylvania’s moist thickets you’ll also find wild and bur cucumbers … but don’t eat them!
Wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata) is an annual vine that can be unruly at this time of year. After a summer of growing, climbing and blooming it has thrown its tendrils around trees and over bushes. Its spiny cucumber fruits hang at intervals along the vine waiting to dry out and explode the seeds in all directions.
The seeds take up a big part of the fruit as you can see from this sliced one. I wonder if any animals eat this…
A look-alike plant with even smaller, spikier fruits is the Bur cucumber (Sicyos angulatus). Its clustered “cucumbers” aren’t edible and frankly look dangerous because the ratio of spines to fruit is a lot higher.
Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide separates these plants by their flower parts but there are other hints as well:
- Wild cucumber has six petals, Bur has five.
- Wild has smooth stems. Bur has sticky hairs on its stem.
- Wild has deeply lobed leaves. Bur has broad, heart-shaped leaves.
- Wild’s fruits hang separately. Bur’s fruits are in clusters.
- Wild’s fruits are about the size of the leaves (can be 2″). Bur’s fruits are small.
Dianne and Bob Machesney found the wild ones at the Butler-Freeport Trail and burs at Green Cove in Washington County.
If you want to eat a cucumber, go for the real thing in the garden or grocery store. It’s been cultivated for 3,000 years.
(photos by Dianne Machesney)