Wild Cucumber (Echinocystis lobata)
This native plant with spiky fruit is common along roadsides.
Out of sight, out of mind for most of the year, the wild cucumber elbows its way into visibility across Minnesota in mid-August as vines that spent the summer months growing up and over other roadside plants burst into bloom.
What’s in a Name? This plant’s scientific name comes from Greek words related to “spiny” and “bladder”—a reference to the plant’s distinctively shaped and textured fruit. As for the “cucumber” part of the common name, the fruit isn’t fleshy and edible like a garden cucumber—but wild and domesticated cucumbers are related.
Appearance. A wild cucumber plant consists of a bright green vine with hand-sized leaves, each with five prominent points. Curly appendages called tendrils sprouting in threes from the base of the leaves grab onto plants and other surfaces, anchoring the stalk and allowing it to grow skyward. Vines can grow 25 feet long. Male and female flowers are found on the same plant. Cream-colored or yellowish, with skinny petals arranged in a star-shaped cluster, they grow in elongated, erect clusters. After being pollinated by insects, the female flowers swell into 2-inch-long, spiny seedpods that turn from green to brown as they dry out.
Habitat. A sun-loving plant, wild cucumber favors open spaces with other vegetation it can climb. Historically found along the edges of streams and wetlands, it’s now common along roadsides.
Distribution. Wild cucumber is native throughout much of the northern and central United States, including all of Minnesota, and southern Canada.
Life Cycle. In early spring, a kidney bean–size seed sprouts two fat leaves, from which emerges a tiny vine. As the vine grows it sends out tendrils that allow the plant to climb upward. Blossoms appear in mid-August, drawing attention to the otherwise inconspicuous plant and making it seem as though it showed up overnight. After pollination, seedpods balloon from the base of the female flowers. Each pod contains two chambers; each chamber contains two seeds. Hydrostatic pressure that builds as the seedpods dry may cause them to burst open, flinging the seeds to the ground. The plant dies at the end of the growing season, leaving the seeds to carry on the next generation.
Human Impact. Historically, Indigenous people used the root of wild cucumber to make medicines to ease headache, stomach trouble, and other ailments. Some also used the seeds for beads. Though some property owners and gardeners may regard wild cucumber as unsightly, it’s unlikely the plant is doing significant harm to the plant that’s supporting it.