Bur Cucumber: Wildflower Wednesday

– Posted in: Native/Invasive
17 comments

fruit and leaves of bur cucumber

Weirdly wonderful bur cucumber fruit

What better way to celebrate autumn than with a native wildflower more noted for its fruit than its flower. Bur cucumber (Echinocystis lobata), also known as wild cucumber, balsam-apple, or Concombre sauvage, grows on my property in a hedgerow surrounding a ditch.
bur cucumber vine

Bur cucumber vine

The leaves of this vine are often described as maple-like, but remind me of an ivy.
Leaf and flowers of bur cucumber Echinocystis lobata

Photo by urtica

The flowers are normally borne in clusters and are said to be fragrant, but I have never put my nose to them to test this out.
Close up of bur cucumber flower Echinocystis lobata

You can see the tiny fruits

It is hard to believe such tiny flowers grow into such relatively large fruits. According to Botany Photo of the Day,

“These fascinating fruits go out with a bang, having an explosive dehiscence mechanism. Each fruit contains four seeds, which develop under increasing hydrostatic pressure. If birds or small mammals don’t interfere with the fruit before it fully ripens, the fruit will expel its seeds at a speed of 11.5 m/s!”

I’ve never seen that, either! Maybe I should start paying closer attention. What I do know is that after several freezes and thaws, the fleshy vegetation rots away, leaving an intriguing network of fibers reminiscent of a luffa:

dried bur cucumber fruit Echinocystis lobata

The dried fruit is fascinating in its own right. Photo by monteregina

I couldn’t find any information on wildlife that eats or otherwise benefits from this plant. I do know it provides entertainment for humans, especially the juvenile form. Even the name is fun: echino = hedgehog and cystis = bladder.
Image of bur cucumber leaf and flower by urtica
Image of dried bur cucumber fruit by monteregina

Posted for Wildflower Wednesday, created by Gail of Clay and Limestone, to share wildflowers/native plants no matter where you garden in the blogasphere. It doesn’t matter if we sometimes show the same plants. How they grow and thrive in your garden is what matters most. It’s always the fourth Wednesday of the month!

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

In the end, this may be the most important thing about frost: Frost slows us down. In spring, it tempers our eagerness. In fall, it brings closure and rest. In our gotta-go world–where every nanosecond seems to count–slowness can be a great gift. So rather than see Jack Frost as an adversary, you could choose to greet him as a friend.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

Comments on this entry are closed.

Andy September 14, 2014, 6:27 pm

When these grown from seeds they look just like zucchini. Make sure you remove these from trees at every change to ease the pressure on their branches. Fantastic fence decorations though!

Katrinka October 1, 2010, 1:20 pm

WARNING – These are explosively invasive and can cover a lovely landscape in a very short time. (I used to offer my children one penny for each root they brought to me).

They get up into the trees and before you know it – like kudzu – you can’t see the forest for the cucumbers. Please don’t plant or spread this unless you’re prepared to contain it… 🙂

Katrinka in Vermont

Kathy Purdy October 1, 2010, 2:11 pm

Katrinka, Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I didn’t plant bur cucumber and don’t plan on spreading it. But I have lived here over 20 years and haven’t seen it take over, and in the same period I have watched multiflora rose, tartarian honeysuckle, garlic mustard, and wild parsnip all make significant inroads. When researching this plant, I did see some sources that said it was invasive, but they were warmer than here. I will keep my eye on it. Goodness knows winters are warmer here than they once were, but spring comes just as late and is more erratic than ever.

Earthyman September 26, 2010, 10:31 am

These plants grow very quickly and they are an annual. Vines can be used to cover and hide unsightly landscapes. Seeds should be planted right away in the fall as they loose their germ quickly.

Corner Garden Sue September 25, 2010, 11:17 pm

I see Scott said he saw this kind of plant when he lived in Nebraska. I think he lived in the country. I am in Nebraska, and don’t remember whether I’ve seen it. I enjoyed your information and photos of it.

Rose September 23, 2010, 10:18 pm

What an interesting plant! I’ve never seen this wild cucumber before. Must be fun to be around when it decides to expel its seeds:)

Lisa Ueda September 23, 2010, 7:58 am

I love the skeletal look of the dried fruit, it reminds me of oriental poppies long after the flowers have faded and the seedheads have dropped to the ground.

Mr. McGregor's Daughter September 22, 2010, 8:41 pm

I can imagine boys have a great time pelting each other with the fruits. That is one freaky plant.

Ilona September 22, 2010, 7:11 pm

This is a plant I’m not at all familiar with- interesting ^^. That picture certainly does look like a loofah. It would be neat to see this plant in real life, now I wonder if it grows in Ohio and I just somehow wasn’t paying attention.

Lisa at Greenbow September 22, 2010, 4:20 pm

This is a scary plant to me. It reminds me of sand burs which I have to pick out of Luna’s pads from time to time while out walking. I would hate to run into this one. I can see how it is an interesting plant though. I wonder if the pioneers used these skeletal remains as a pot scrubber. ??

leavesnbloom September 22, 2010, 3:47 pm

I’ve never heard of this plant before. I think that it ‘s a curiosity plant for sure especially with its dried fruit.

Daricia September 22, 2010, 2:49 pm

what an interesting plant! that tiny luffa-like skeleton is so cute. explosive dehiscence is always fun, too. you know, it’s possible the animals that ate it have gone extinct. i just learned that osage orange is such a plant, or so some paleobotanists believe. Here’s an interesting article about how Kentucky coffee tree co-evolved with mastadons – maybe this plant is similar? http://natureinquiries.wordpress.com/2009/04/10/mastodon-trees/

Scott Weber September 22, 2010, 1:49 pm

I used to be fascinated by these back when I lived in NE. They would just appear out of nowhere and start growing up trees. I loved the other-worldly look of the seedpods.

Gail September 22, 2010, 12:24 pm

Kathy, What a really cool plant and I love the explosive dehiscence. I’ve read that witch hazel also disperses seed by exploding. Oh to hear them pop! I love learning about new plants! gail

Jan (Thanks For Today) September 22, 2010, 9:34 am

The leaves definitely look like ivy…if I didn’t know there was a ‘fruit’ there I’d just assume that’s what it was. Having never heard of this, it was interesting to learn about it!

commonweeder September 22, 2010, 9:16 am

What a great post. I have never seen this plant. What fun.