Sunday, July 6, 2014

Add Impact (Literally) to Your Garden with the Exploding Cucumber, Ecballium elaterium

Echballium elaterium is in the
cucumber family, so it's not surprising
that the fruits look like little cukes
One this week's tasks at Kew was to prop up and cut back plants that were flopping into the grass paths of the Order Beds.  We were working under the guidance of Chrissy, one of Kew's horticulture students.  We walked through some of the lower beds, and she identified sections that needed to be propped and other plants that needed to be trimmed.  She warned me, "Watch out for the squirting cucumber."

Having just learned that one of the plants in the Cucurbitaceae beds squirted, and knowing full well what a cucumber looks like, I set off to work.  But by the time I had made my way down toward the end of the section, about twenty or so minutes later, I had already forgotten Chrissy's warning.  With the first snip of my secateurs (pruners), a small cucumber shot out from the foliage it had been hiding under and hit me square in the stomach.  Startled, I dropped my pruners and fell backwards, off of my knees and flat onto my rear.  I thought, "That's a plant worth writing about."

Mediterranean Roots
The exploding cucumber, also known as Ecballium elaterium (1790-624, UCNW), is native to the Mediterranean region.  As is true with many Mediterranean natives, this plant prefers well drained (but not dry) soil in a sunny location.  However, E. elaterium is adaptable and can handle less than ideal conditions.  Although this plant is a perennial in its native region, it is grown as an annual in cooler climates like England and much of North America (USDA hardiness zones 8b to 10a).

Flower bud, opening bloom, and
finished flower head of E. elaterium
The E. elaterium has been used medicinally since the time of the ancient Greeks.  One of the first written records of this plant is by Hippocrates (460 - 375 BC), who described how to prepare various parts of the plants to cause purging in patients.  The specific epithet elaterium is actually derived from the Greek "elaterio" which means "to cast out".  This probably has more to do with the fact that the plant shoot its seeds out up to 6 feet (see video below) rather than its medicinal use for purging and reducing fluid retention.

There is no indication that this plant is in danger of extinction in its natural habitat today, either from the CITES database or the IUCN Red List of threatened species.

Botanical Description
E. elaterium was first described in 1824 by Achille Richard, French botanist, doctor, and director of the Benjamin Delessert Herbarium and at Paris' Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle.  Several online sources state that the plant is so toxic that a doctor suffered "serious symptoms" when transporting seeds of this plant inside of his hat, from the Jardins de Plantes to his home in Paris.  Perhaps that doctor was Achille Richard?

Anatomical Characteristics
E. elaterium has the same growth habit as a bush cucumber, although the vine does not produce tendrils.  The leaves, flowers, and fruits (to an extent) also look like those of a cucumber.  However, this plant should not be eaten like a cucumber, because it is poisonous.

The exploding cucumber makes a
nice, silvery groundcover that provides
a literal impact factor to any landscape
Although the fruits looks somewhat like little cucumbers, they are much smaller (about 2 inches in length) and contain fluid and seeds.  As the fruits develop, they become slightly pinched on one side, which increases the pressure inside.  When the stem and fruits begin to yellow, a small brush from an unwary animal or gardener will cause the fruit to shoot off of its stem, spraying fluid and seeds behind it.  If any seeds get stuck to the unfortunate (and probably very startled) soul that disturbed the plant in the first place, they may transport the plant's genetic material to a new place, where the exploding cucumber can start this process all over again.

Landscape Value
The exploding cucumber has really nice silvery, densely pubescent foliage and stems.  This ground cover would be good when contrasted with plants that have different forms and textures.  Perhaps in a large container with a bold, upright 'Sparkling Burgundy' pineapple lily (Eucomis comosa) and a fine, feathery 'Rita's Gold' Boston fern (Nephrolepsis exaltata).  E. elatarium should grow to drape over the edge of the container, showcasing its beautiful foliage and explosive fruits.

This plant has a lot of impact factor -- literally.  This would be a fun addition for a home landscape near walkways to startle unwitting guests.  However, use with care.  This plant is toxic.  So although it seems like the perfect, fun addition to a children's garden, it really should not be grown in that situation.  Children may confuse the fruits with actual cucumbers, eat them, and become very sick.

So if you're looking for a fun, adaptable annual to try in your garden this year, consider adding the exploding cucumber.  Remember to plant responsibly -- this plant shouldn't be grown where children can get a hold of the fruits and eat them, because they could become very sick.

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please feel welcome to leave a comment or send me an email.

To see more photos from this week, be sure to check out the album "Exploding Cucumber" on the Plante on Plants Facebook page.  "Likes", shares and comments are appreciated.

All photos and videos were taken by Amanda Plante at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew unless otherwise stated in the caption.


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