By Wendy Langhans
Earlier this week, a few people asked me about a “green spiky funny-looking oblong thingy” they saw along the trail. I didn’t need a photograph to know exactly what they were talking about – the seed pod of a wild cucumber. Even though we think of a cucumber as food, these are not. The scientific name, Marah macrocarpus, provides a clue as to why it’s not edible. According to certain ancient passages in the Bible, (Exodus 15:23 and Ruth 1:20), “marah” means “bitter”.
Native Americans did not eat wild cucumbers, but found other uses for the plant. Besides using the roots and seeds as a purgative, the roots were also used to make a soapy lather and the seeds were pounded into a paste for skin sores or mixed with iron oxide and turpentine to make red paint.
Right now the tiny white flowers are in bloom but I find the seed pods much more interesting. Those spikes serve two useful purposes. First, they discourage wild animals from eating the seed pods. Do you remember the last time you bit down on the sharp jagged edge of a potato chip? If so, you’ll immediately understand what I mean.
Second, the spikes help disperse the seeds as they hook the pod onto the fur of a passing animal. Later and often miles away, the animal may brush up against something else and dislodge the seed pod. At the end, the pod splits open and the hydrostatic pressure within the pod expels the seeds as fast as 25 mph. Just like a pea shooter in Junior high.
Let’s see: prickly pods, bitter tasting, soapy root, digestive purgative, and seeds that are expelled at a speed of 25 mph. Oh yeah. I would definitely not eat this plant.