Cucumber Family and Wild Cucumber


I hope you had a good Thanksgiving, enjoying the company of friends and family, some homemade pumpkin pie, maybe some squash, and perhaps some decorations including small gourds. All of those plants are members of the cucumber family (Cucurbitaceae). The family contains some of the earliest domesticated or cultivated plants, and includes pumpkin, squash, gourd, watermelon, cucumber, muskmelon, cantaloupe, and zucchini which of course is God’s great gift to the novice gardener.

The cucumber family consists of close to a thousand species from both the Old World and New World. They are mainly native to tropical and subtropical areas, but a few species are native to more temperate climates as well. Pumpkin, for example, is native to North America, specifically the southern United States and northeastern Mexico

Here in North America, various varieties of pumpkin and squash were used by Native Americans for food for millennia, and that includes the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara. It is interesting to note, however, that there are only two members of the cucumber family native to North Dakota, and neither is of much human utility.

One of the species, bur cucumber is uncommon in the state and region. The other species, wild cucumber or Echinocystis lobata is a widely distributed weedy vine.

Wild cucumber is an annual climbing vine with alternate leaves between 2-3 inches long and wide, and generally has five prominently triangular lobes. Many clusters of small, rather plain colored cream to greenish white flowers are produced in July and August.

The plant is typically observed climbing on vegetation such as trees or shrubs along a river or stream, brushy hillside, or similar habitats.

It is when the plant is in fruit that it becomes easily recognized by the casual observer. The fruits are quite unusual and distinctive, resembling a small prickly oval shaped cucumber, thus the common name. The fruits are around 1-2 inch long oval green papery structures with lots of soft prickles. As they mature and dry out, they turn brownish and take on a dry papery appearance.

I suspect the vast majority of the listeners to Prairie Public have seen this rather curious looking plant, but perhaps didn’t know what it was.

Chuck Lura

Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.






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