The Spiny Sac Cucumber
This summer, I have watched a vine grow up and over a holly bush outside my office window. At first, it was a small presence in the canopy, but within two weeks after I first noticed it, the vine had nearly covered the entire top of the bush. A few days afterwards, I cut the vine at the base, and pulled it out of the holly so that it would not kill the bush by cutting off its access to sunlight.
Along the vine, I found fruits like the one you see below, between one and three inches long, covered with long spines.
This is Echinocystis lobata, a member of the spiny sac genus of the cucumber family. It is commonly known as wild cucumber, but it is not the same species as the domesticated, garden variety cucumber. In fact, its fruits are not edible at all, although the tender leaves and shoots are. It is said by many that the flowers of Echinocystis lobata have a lovely fragrance, though I never smelled anything coming from the plant, even when walking just a few feet from it.
According to Plants For A Future asserts that the root of this species of wild cucumber can be made into a bitter tea that treats headache, along with a variety of other ailments, and has aphrodisiac qualities. Of course, the site also offers a disclaimer that it doesn’t intend to offer any medical advice, so a substantial dose of skepticism is called for.
Prairie Moon sells seeds for Echinocystis lobata, but if you know other gardeners, ask them if they have some growing in their gardens or yards already. Wildlife often spread the seeds naturally, and seeds gathered from a few plants in the wild are likely to possess more genetic diversity than those sold by a nursery.
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service states that Echinocystis lobata can be “invasive”, but it’s a native plant across almost the entire United States, so that’s a rather subjective judgment. When farmers plant vast fields of soybeans and corn, and some vines of wild cucumber pop up in the fields, which plant is really the invader?