Hedgehog Bladders Take Over The Hedge

Festive wild cucumbers make great decorations! 
By Rebecca Roy, Conservation Education Coordinator

I love receiving nature related questions from friends and family. There was that one time my mechanical engineer sister wrote to me in panic about dying pine trees along the interstate (it was fall and they were tamaracks turning yellow), and recently I got a “what the heck is this?” message from my geologist brother. He sent me a photo of wild cucumber vines growing on his woodpile.

These leafy vines and spiky fruit are an interesting spectacle. Wild cucumbers catch your eye in edges and disturbed places, growing up and over trees and shrubs, grabbing on with their curling tendrils. Although they have very fragrant and numerous whitish yellow flowers in June—it is the spiky pods that catch attention.

Wild cucumber seed pods look like very spiky cucumbers. The scientific name for wild cucumber, Echinocystis lobata means hedgehog bladder, which accurately describes this spiky fruit. Cousins to our domestic and delicious cucumber, wild cucumbers are not edible. The seed pods develop in late August and September in Vermont, and then the vessel dries and ejects four large, flat brownish, blackish seeds from the bottom of the pod.

A young child taught me about wild cucumbers twenty years ago while I led a field trip adventure. Children are blessed with the ability of wonderful discovery. A spiky fruit growing in the hedge is a teachable moment, for the student and the teacher. We popped one open that day and admired the large flat seeds growing inside.

Recently I walked by a beautiful huge vine with my dad and he reminisced about a childhood spent chucking wild cucumbers at his brothers. When they are fresh and green, the cucumber spikes are soft, but they grow spikier as the seed pod dries. Now is a good time to pick these spiky fruits because they are dried and have expelled their seeds. You can use them as projectiles during your next family get together, or you can put them on your Christmas tree as we did. 

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