What looks like a cucumber but isn’t

A-Z of fruit and veg

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For more exciting facts about fruit and veg, plus great ideas on how to eat your 5 A DAY, dive into the Alphabet of fruit and Alphabet of vegetables on World Cancer Research Fund’s new Real Recipes website.

Back to topApple

Granny Smith, Royal Gala, Golden Delicious and Pink Lady are just a few of the thousands of different kinds of apple that are grown around the world! You can make dried apple rings at home – ask an adult to help you take out the core, thinly slice the apple and bake the rings in the oven at a low heat.

Did you know you can cook apples? Try our delicious and healthy baked apples recipe.Back to topApricot

Apricots can be eaten fresh or dried – both are packed with vitamins! Fresh apricots have a soft and slightly furry skin. They make a good lunchbox snack. Apricots are also high in beta-carotene – this helps us keep our eyes and skin healthy.

Do you know where apricots grow? Play our online game ‘Where does it grow?’ to learn where apricots and other vegetables and fruit grow.Back to topAsparagus Asparagus is a shoot vegetable – we eat the stalk and the tip. It makes any dish look more interesting with its unusual shape. Asparagus is a good source of a vitamin called folate, which is important for healthy blood.Back to topAubergine Most aubergines are teardrop-shaped and have a glossy purple skin. On the inside, they are spongy and creamy white. Aubergines grow on bushes and are really fruits – although you wouldn’t want to eat them raw. Australians and Americans call it eggplant because some types look a bit like large eggs!Back to topAvocado

It is sometimes called an avocado pear. Avocado is often mistaken for a vegetable because we eat it like a salad vegetable, but it is actually a fruit. Avocados are at their best when they are ripe and very easy to prepare. They can simply be cut in half with the stone removed and eaten with a little salad dressing or chopped into a salad. Avocados are a good source of essential fats (the good ones) – one of the few fruits or vegetables that contain fat.

Is avocado a fruit? Test your knowledge. Take our ‘Olive-tastic’ quiz on vegetables and fruit.Back to topBanana

Bananas make a nutritious snack! They are a great source of energy and contain lots of vitamins and minerals, especially potassium, which is important to help cells, nerves and muscles in your body to work properly and it helps to lower blood pressure. They have a thick skin to protect them, which is green before bananas are ripe, and get more yellow in colour and sweeter in taste as they ripen. We peel away the skin and eat the soft fleshy part of the fruit underneath. Bananas grow in hanging clusters, sometimes called hands, on the banana plant in tropical regions like Southeast Asia. You can eat them raw, baked, dried or in a smoothie. Why don’t you try mashing it up and have it with yoghurt or porridge or even on brown toast?

Would you like to race a banana? Play our ‘Beat the banana’ online game and see if you can beat Bertie to the finish line.Back to topBeetroot

Beetroot is the root of the beet plant – which explains its name! People have grown it for food since Roman times. Raw beetroot is best for you and great for grating – peel it first. Try it in a salad or sandwich. Small beetroots are usually the sweetest. Ahhhh!

Did you know you can grow beetroot at home? Follow our guide to growing beetroot. It’s fun and easy.Back to top Black-eye bean

In America, these beans are often called black-eyed peas or cow peas. They each have a little black dot on the side – this is where they were once attached to their pod, so it’s a bit like a belly button! You can mix them with all sorts of other beans to make a super salad.

Playing beanbag games is a great way to stay active. Learn how to make a beanbag by following our simple guide.Back to top Broad bean

Another name for this bean is the ‘Fava bean’. Broad beans grow in a green, leathery pod. The beans can be eaten fresh, when they are green, or dried, when they have turned brown. The way to identify them is by their flat, broad shape. Beans are a good source of protein and fibre.

Why not try growing a bean plant at home? It’s easy with our step-by-step instructions.Back to top Broccoli Broccoli is closely related to cabbage – and it’s another one of those ‘greens’ we’re always being told to eat up. The part of a broccoli plant we normally eat is the lovely flowerhead – the flowers are usually green but sometimes purple. Steamed broccoli is tasty in a salad or stir-fry.Back to top Brussels sprout Brussels sprouts are like mini cabbages! They grow out of the ground in knobbly rows on a long tough stalk. They contain loads of vitamin C. Can you guess which country BRUSSELS sprouts originally came from? Well, Brussels is the capital city of Belgium!Back to top Butternut Squash

Butternut squash is large and pear-shaped with a golden-brown to yellow skin. We don’t eat the skin and seeds, only the flesh. The flesh is really hard when it is raw but it turns soft and sweet when it is cooked. It can be roasted, pureed, mashed or used in soups or casseroles. It is a good source of beta-carotene, which is turned into vitamin A in the body. Beta-carotene gives the flesh its bright orange colour.

Keep warm in the winter! Try making Mixer’s butternut squash soup.Back to top Carrot

Carrots grow underground and they can be used in all sorts of dishes – from casseroles to cakes. Raw carrots are great to crunch on and they make a healthy juice, too. They contain lots of beta-carotene – this helps us keep our eyes and skin healthy.

Use carrots to make Captain Carrot and other ‘Funny face pizzas’.Back to top Cherry Cherries are stone fruits – just like their friends the apricots. A cherry tree can carry on producing fruit for 100 years! Cherries grow from stalks in pairs. Ahhh! Sweet ones like the Bing cherry are nicest on their own or in a fruit salad. Sour ones like Morello cherries are tastier cooked.Back to top Clementine

This citrus fruit is the smallest of the tangerines. The skin of Clementines can be peeled away easily and the segments don’t contain pips, which makes them a lot less messy to eat than some other varieties. They smell so delicious and naturally sweet. They are often eaten at Christmas time. Citrus fruits are a good source of vitamin C.

Add segments of clementine to a fruit kebab for a fun way to eat fruit.Back to top Courgette

A courgette is a type of squash and if it isn’t picked early, it grows into a marrow! Courgettes grow on bushes. They look quite like cucumbers and have very soft seeds. They can be cooked with onions, tomatoes, aubergines and peppers to make ratatouille. The American name for a courgette is ‘zucchini’.

Courgettes count towards your 5 A DAY. Download our ‘5 A DAY bingo’ game and have fun playing bingo with your friends.Back to top Date

Dates are the fruit of the date palm tree and lots of them are grown in Egypt and California (USA). Dried dates make a super sweet snack. They can be chopped and sprinkled on cereal instead of sugar or honey.

We use dates in our mince pie recipe. Why not try making mince pies this Christmas?Back to top Elderberry

These little, almost black berries grow on bushes all over the countryside in summer! They aren’t good to eat raw but they are berry nice cooked with other fruits in pies or used to make jam!

WARNING: Some berries are poisonous, so don’t pick them without checking with an adult first. And never eat the leaves!

Back to top Endive

Endive is a member of the lettuce family. It is shaped like a bulb and has leaves that overlap each other – try peeling them off one by one to see how many there are. The leaves are a bit bitter on their own but they are delicious in a salad mixed with sweet tomatoes and slices of orange.

Endive leaves have a bright yellow tip. You could use some to add even more colour to our ‘Rainbow salad’ recipe.Back to top Fennel

This vegetable tastes a bit like liquorice! Fennel is a plant that grows in the ground. A bulb shape grows at the base of the plant, and this is the part that you eat. Raw fennel adds a super crunchy taste to salads. You can also slice it and cook it like onion or celery to use in casseroles. The feathery leaves and seeds add flavouring to cooking, just like herbs.

Discover when fennel grows by reading our quick guide to what’s in season.Back to top Fig

Figs are soft sweet fruits, full of small seeds and often eaten dried. They grow on trees. Fresh figs are delicious and jams and chutneys are often made from them. The skin of a fig is very thin and ripe figs do not keep or travel very well so in warm countries figs are dried.

Have you ever tried figs? What other vegetables and fruit have you tried? Tell us on the ‘I tried’ page.Back to top Garlic

Did you know garlic can help keep mosquitoes away?! And yes, garlic can make your breath smell a bit… garlicky! We eat all different parts of plants and garlic is the bulb. Open it up and you’ll see lots of segments – or cloves – with a papery covering. You only need to use one or two of these to add loads of extra flavour to a food.

Do you know what garlic looks like? Match up pairs of pictures in our fun online game and discover interesting facts.Back to top Grape

Grapes grow in bunches on vines. On the inside, they are sweet, juicy and jelly-like. Green grapes are also called white grapes and are dried to make sultanas. Purple ones can be called black grapes and are dried to make raisins. There are red grapes too – red grape juice tastes totally delicious!

Did you know grapes are a healthy snack? Why not try making a ‘Healthy snack holder’?Back to top Green bean French beans, runner beans, common beans, bobby beans, string beans, Thai beans, wax beans and haricots verts are all names for different types of green bean. Wax beans aren’t even green – they can be yellow or purple! Green beans are picked when they are very young – they should be bright in colour and firm. If the pods are bendy, they won’t taste sweet and crunchy! To eat the beans, the ends should be chopped off – this is called topping and tailing. They only need to be cooked in boiling water for a few minutes then they are ready to eat. In France, they are often eaten in a salad with potatoes and tuna. Ask an adult to help you make one! Green beans are a good source of fibre, which helps keep your tummy healthy. They also contain beta-carotene, which helps us keep our eyes and skin healthy.Back to top Guava

The guava fruit is widely grown in tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world. It can be round to pear-shaped with a thin skin that is green and turns yellow as it ripens. The flesh can be white or even pink, and the seeds can be eaten. The guava fruit contains lots of beta-carotene (which forms vitamin A in the body) and vitamin C. The flesh can make a great snack or dessert chopped up, or scooped straight from the skin.

Did you know Guava is yellow? Download our yellow plant foods factsheet to learn more about yellow vegetables and fruit.Back to top Haricot bean

These little beans are white and grow all over the world. Baking them gives you baked beans – the beans are cooked in a tomato sauce. Try them on toast for breakfast. Beans are good for giving you energy.

Haricot beans are a pulse. Learn about other seeds and pulses with Searcher.Back to top Honeydew melon

Honeydew melons grow on trailing vines along the ground. There are THOUSANDS of different kinds of melon – they all have a hard outside, which you can’t eat, and a juicy sweet inside that makes your mouth water!

Our delicious ‘Rainbow fruit salad’ uses melon. Why not try making it?Back to top Iceberg lettuce

There are many, many kinds of lettuce to choose from. Iceberg has a cool, crisp taste. It adds lots of crunch to a sandwich! Other types of lettuce can be curly, dark green or even red! Iceberg lettuce leaves can make a good wrapper for other foods – try wrapping one around a piece of cheese or a boiled egg.

Grow your own lettuce leaves!Back to top Jerusalem artichoke The knobbly Jerusalem artichoke is related to the pretty sunflower. But it isn’t a type of artichoke and it doesn’t come from Jerusalem! The bit of it we eat is an ugly little tuber (like a small thin potato). The yummy white flesh inside tastes amazing.Back to top Kiwi fruit

A kiwi fruit is hairy on the outside and soft in the middle. It is one of the only fruits to be green when it is ripe. You can scoop out the juicy green flesh with a spoon just like a boiled egg! One kiwi fruit contains all the vitamin C you need for a whole day. Vitamin C helps your body to heal cuts and bruises and to fight colds.

We have lots of ideas for activities and games, including our fun ‘Kiwi and spoon race’.Back to top Leek

These are in the same family as onion and garlic – they are allium vegetables. Leeks need to be washed well to remove any dirt and grit between the white sections. You can boil or steam leeks to add to a recipe or stir-fry them with other vegetables. They are in season in the UK. over the winter months and are a good source of fibre.

Our leek and potato soup is simple and tasty.Back to top Lemon

Lemons were used on ships of famous explorers – the vitamin C stopped sailors from getting a disease called scurvy. You can squeeze out the juice and mix it with water to make a zingy drink.

Did you know you can make invisible ink using a lemon? Have fun pretending to be a secret agent.Back to top Mango

Mangoes come in different shapes and sizes. You have to peel off the skin to eat the soft, juicy flesh inside. Mangoes grow best in hot countries like India and Malaysia. There are more than 2,500 different kinds of mango in the world!

Our ‘Traffic light lollies’ recipe uses mango to make the orange light. What type of fruit do you think we use for red and green?Back to top Melon

There are many types of melon; honeydew, cantaloupe and galia, to name a few. The flesh of these different melons, which is the bit we eat, comes in different colours; cantaloupe is usually orange because it is high in beta-carotene, honeydew is usually pale-green to yellow and galia is usually a deeper green. Unlike what its name may indicate, the watermelon is not actually a melon, just a distant relative of the melon. Its flesh is usually pink as it is high in the antioxidant, lycopene. Melons grow off a vine, and have a strong outer skin to protect them, which we don’t eat. Melon goes great chopped up in a fruit salad, adding lots of colour and flavour. It is very refreshing as a snack in the hot summertime too!

We use melon in our exciting ‘Pirate party food’ recipe. Why not try making some?Back to top Mushroom

Although mushrooms are not fruits or vegetables (they are actually a type of fungus), they still count as one of your 5 A DAY. They are tasty on toast with scrambled egg and a grilled tomato.

WARNING: Picking wild mushrooms is not safe! Only an expert can tell which ones are poisonous.

Make cute cat faces with our ‘Purrfect mushrooms’ recipe. It’s delicious, healthy and fun.Back to top Nectarine

Nectarines are a type of peach with a thin smooth skin and firm flesh. The skin of a peach is more furry but the fruit tastes almost exactly the same. You have to be very gentle with them – they can bruise, just like you do, and the fruit will go bad where the bruise is.

You can use nectarines in a fruit salad or you could try making our fun ‘Tutti-frutti sundae’.Back to top Nut

Your brain looks like a giant walnut. To make it grow it needs protein, which is found in nuts! A nut is actually a fruit, or the seed of a fruit. There are lots of different kinds but they all have a hard, dry shell around a kernel (the part of the nut you eat). A Brazil nut tree can live for 500 years!

WARNING: Children under 5 should not be given whole or chopped nuts due to risk of choking. And please don’t eat nuts if you are allergic to them!

‘Can you crack it?’ Try our fun online game and see if you can match all the nuts with their shells.Back to top Olive

Olives are really fruits and they grow on trees. If green olives are left on the tree, they turn black. Have you had them on a pizza? Olives come in many sizes and flavours so you may need to try lots of different ones to find out which ones you like best.

Take the ‘Olive-tastic’ quiz. How much do you know about olives and other vegetables and fruit?Back to top Orange Oranges are really famous – they are one of the most popular fruits in the world! Oranges grow best in countries such as Spain and Italy – where it’s hot and sunny during the day and cooler at night. A glass of pure orange juice counts as one of your 5 A DAY. Try cutting an orange into quarters and freezing it to make a healthy icy treat!Back to top Pea

Petit pois, mangetout, sugar snap and marrowfat are all fancy names for different types of pea. Thousands of tonnes of garden peas are grown in the United Kingdom every year to make frozen peas. A bag of these can come in handy if you’ve had a bump, but eating them is best of all! Sprinkle some over a salad a few minutes before serving for a cold crunchy taste.

You could use peas to make one of our funny ‘Potato faces’.Back to top Peanut

If you buy peanuts in their shells, they are often called monkey nuts – they are given this name because monkeys are thought to love them! Birds and squirrels like them too. Peanuts belong to the same family as peas and beans and grow underground.

Nuts make a healthier snack than crisps or chocolate. Learn more about nuts and dried fruit.Back to top Pear Which fruits always travel in groups of two? Answer: pears! Pears are from the same family as apples but they are softer. They can be yellow, green, reddish or brown on the outside but they all have white, juicy flesh inside. One of the best-loved English pears is called Conference.Back to top Pepper

Peppers can be red, yellow, green or orange – some are even white or purple! If you don’t like the way one colour tastes, you might like another. The green ones are less sweet – red peppers are actually ripened green peppers.

Red peppers are a really delicious snack to have in your packed lunch. Plan your packed lunches with our online game.Back to top Pineapple

It can take TWO YEARS to grow a pineapple. This rough, spiky fruit is actually made up of lots of smaller fruits that have stuck together. It was given its name because early explorers thought it looked like a pine cone. You could use the skin of a pineapple as a bowl to eat your fruit salad!

Try making this delicious pineapple dip recipe, and other ‘Tasty dips from around the world’.Back to top Pumpkin

Pumpkins are orange on the outside, and also on the inside. Although we associate pumpkins with Halloween decoration, they are actually a tasty vegetable too (but we don’t eat the outside, just the flesh inside) and they are related to the cucumber. They can be boiled, baked, roasted or mashed and make delicious soups and even pumpkin pie! They have plenty of beta-carotene, which is turned into vitamin A in our bodies. It is the beta-carotene that give pumpkins their orange colour. There is another part of the pumpkin we use too! Pumpkin seeds can be roasted and eaten as a tasty snack, or sprinkled over yoghurt, and are a good source of essential fatty acids (the good fats).

Get ready for Halloween. Make a pumpkin lantern. Keep the seeds and roast them to make a tasty snack.Back to top Quince

This fruit comes from the same family as the pear, but it can’t be eaten raw. Slices of quince taste lovely in an apple crumble. Quince smells of perfume when it’s been cooked, which means that some people also use it as an air freshener for their home or car! Why don’t you ask an adult if you can try doing the same?

Do you know what a quince looks like? Play our online quiz to see if you can guess the vegetables and fruit from the pictures.Back to top Radish

While some radishes are small and red, others are large and white – and shaped like carrots. Some of the red ones have pretty names like Cherry Belle and Scarlet Globe. Radishes give salad a real ZING! They have a peppery taste and are really crunchy.

Radishes make salads colourful and crunchy. Grow your own at home. The best time to grow them is between March and September.Back to top Raisin

Nearly half of all the world’s raisins come from California – that’s in America. Raisins start off as black grapes. The grapes are turned into raisins by drying them in the sun. Sultanas are made the same way but with green grapes. Mini boxes of raisins are perfect for packed lunches.

Impress your friends with the ‘Incredible dancing raisin’ magic trick. Make raisins magically dance in water.Back to top Rhubarb

Rhubarb was used in Asia long before it was first eaten in Britain. People sometimes grew it in their gardens just because it looked nice! It can be mixed with sweeter fruit like apple. Don’t eat the leaves, they are poisonous!

Rhubarb is lovely stewed on its own, but you could also use it in a delicious pancake topping. Try our healthy pancake recipe.Back to top Satsuma

Satsumas, clementines and mandarins are all different names for types of tangerine. They grow on trees and they grow best in warm weather. The juiciest ones are the heaviest ones. See if you can take the peel off in one piece!

Don’t throw away the net your satsumas come in! You can use it to make a fun microphone. Learn to make other musical instruments too.Back to top Strawberry

Anyone for tennis? Followed by some strawberries of course! Around 25,000kg of strawberries are eaten at Wimbledon each year. Strawberries are actually members of the rose family. They are the only fruits to have their seeds on the outside – one strawberry can have as many as 200.

You can turn strawberries into a cool, tasty treat. Try making our icy ‘Strawberry granita’ recipe.Back to top Sweet potato

These top tubers grow best in tropical places where the weather is warm. They are famous for appearing in lots of Caribbean recipes! They come in all kinds of knobbly shapes and just like the name suggests, they are sweeter than ordinary potatoes. Try them baked – or boiled and mashed with carrots.

Sweet potatoes make yummy wedges. Why not try our tasty ‘Root vegetable wedges’ recipe?Back to top Tomato

Ask a friend if they think a tomato is a fruit or vegetable and see if they know the answer (it’s a fruit!). The little cherry tomatoes are sweet and tasty in salads or in your lunchbox. Tomatoes are easy to grow in a pot in the garden. Buy some seeds and have a go!

Tomatoes are delicious in sandwiches. We have lots of ideas for tasty sandwich fillings. Try making ‘Monster crunch’ or ‘Peter Pig’.Back to top Turnip

According to folklore, turnips were used as jack o’ lanterns long before pumpkins! The turnip is sometimes muddled up with its bigger relative, the swede. Both are lovely cooked in a stew, or boiled then mashed, or roasted. Raw turnip can be grated into a salad.

Use the ends of your turnip to ‘Grow root islands’. Try this fun activity to grow little trees in water.Back to top Ugli fruit

An Ugli fruit is a cross between a grapefruit and a mandarin! It is about the size of a grapefruit but it tastes a bit sweeter and has a wrinkly skin that peels easily. This funky fruit comes from Jamaica and is also grown in the USA – and it’s not that ugly! It can look a bit weird because its yellowy green skin is thick, rough and puffy – and sometimes a bit blotchy!

Doesn’t ugli fruit have a funny name? If you like doing funny things, play our ‘Funny food figures’ online game.Back to top Victoria plum

Plums come in all sorts of colours but Victoria plums are dark red and are grown in England. They are super sweet eaten raw or can be cooked in tarts and crumbles. Plums have a stone inside. Can you think of other fruits that do?

Do you know which country grows the most plums? Play ‘Fruits and vegetables around the world’ to learn more.Back to top Vine leaf

This is a leaf from the vines that grapes grow on – and these leaves CAN be eaten! They are picked when they are quite young and then cooked slightly to soften them. They are used like a wrapping paper to make little parcels filled with things such as rice or finely chopped vegetables.

There are some leaves you can’t eat! But you could use them to make a leaf mask. A great idea for a fancy dress costume.Back to top Watercress Watercress is grown in water! Give mum or dad a top tip – it will last longer in the fridge if it is kept in a bowl or jar of water. It is tastiest in the three “S”s – salads, sandwiches and soups. Try saying that quickly!Back to top Watermelon Watermelons grow along the ground and they can be ENORMOUS. They contain lots of water and are really, really refreshing! In China, children love drinking watermelon juice in summer to help them stay cool. The Chinese name for a watermelon is xigua.Back to top Yam The skin of a yam is thick and rough like the bark of a tree! Yams are a bit like potatoes but their flesh can be white, yellow or even purple. They come from hot countries in the Caribbean and Africa, where people often mash them up and eat them in spicy stews and soups. A yam can grow to be heavier than a human adult!Back to top Zucchini

Zucchini is the American name for a courgette. You can find more information on courgettes on this page. Take a look!

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A Farmers Market Guide to Asian Vegetables

Here’s a brief, and by no means comprehesive, guide to some of the Asian vegetables you’ll find at the market. Asian greens and root vegetables grow best in the fall through the winter. Heat-loving squash and beans are harvested in the late summer and fall months.

Bitter melon: Bitter melon looks like a cucumber with light green, warty, wrinkled skin. Its bitter taste is caused by quinine, which has medicinal qualities. Blanching or salting reduces the melon’s bitterness. Mature melons can be cooked unpeeled, but their seeds and pith should be removed. Bitter melon is often stuffed with meat or seafood, used in curries, or added to stir-fries.

Bok choy: All parts of this “Chinese cabbage”—stalks, leaves, and young flowering shoots—are edible when young or mature. Many bok choy varieties have dark green leaves and firm white stalks that are crunchy and juicy with a cabbage-like taste. Baby bok choy is tender and delicious sautéed with garlic or added to soups.

Chinese broccoli: In contrast to the Italian broccoli found in most American markets, Chinese broccoli or kale, or gai lan, has thin stems, small flower buds, and blue-green leaves. The crunchy stems, which are more tender and sweet than the Italian variety, are rich in calcium, iron, and vitamins A and C.

Chinese long bean: Also called “yardlong beans” because they can grow up to three feet long, these beans are immature cow pea pods (related to black-eyed peas). Chinese long beans are denser and crunchier than green beans and can be found in different colors, from light and dark green to purple.

Daikon radish: Daikon, which means “great root” in Japanese, has a crispy, crunchy texture with a sweeter, less pungent flavor than most radishes. It’s a common ingredient in many Asian dishes, including Korean kimchi and Japanese pickles. Daikon can be shredded, pickled, and eaten raw, or added to stews and soups, like other root vegetables. Its young leaves and seeds, which taste slightly peppery, are also edible.

Lemongrass: Lemongrass is a heat-loving perennial with a tall, woody stalk, grassy leaves, and a bulbous end. The white inner stem six inches above the base is the part most used in cooking. When bruised, it releases a lemony flavor, popular in Thai cuisine. Lemongrass, like bay leaf, is typically removed from a dish before eating.

Mizuna: Mizuna, also known as Japanese mustard green or spider mustard, is probably originated in China but has been grown in Japan since ancient times. It has feathery, frond-like bright green leaves that taste similar to arugula but are milder and sweeter. It’s often eaten raw in salads, but the leaves can also be steamed, sautéed, or pickled.

Moqua: Shaped like a cucumber with splotchy green skin, this “hairy gourd” has a light, neutral flavor like a zucchini, which makes it a versatile cucurbit to cook with. It can also be pickled or used to make a refreshing drink. The fuzzy covering on young gourds, which have the best texture, can be removed by scrubbing or peeling.

Napa cabbage: Also known as “Chinese cabbage,” Napa cabbage is truer to the description, with its tight, white head and mild flavor, which is well-suited to slaws and sautés.

Opo: The “bottle gourd” has pale green skin and a mild taste. The po qwa variety is frequently used in stir-fries and soups, but it can also be hollowed out, stuffed, and baked. In Japan, dried strips of the gourd’s flesh, kampyo, are used to flavor maki sushi and to tie bundles of food for steaming.

Sinqua: Also known as “luffa,” sinqua can be found in angled and smooth varieties. Angled luffa looks like a zucchini with ridges that run lengthwise. Typically eaten when it’s young, it also tastes a bit like zucchini but sweeter. Its spongy texture soaks up the flavor of foods it’s cooked with. Smooth luffa, when grown to maturity and soaked in bleach, peeled, and dried, can be used as a household scrubber—the “loofah sponge.”

Taro: Taro tubers are starchy with a sweet, subtle taste similar to a potato but slightly nutty like a chestnut. This “potato of the tropics” is customarily offered during the Japanese moon-viewing tradition in September, and taro-filled mooncakes are eaten at the Chinese New Year celebration.

Tatsoi: Tatsoi’s round, dark green leaves grow close to the ground in tight little circles, creating pretty rosettes. The tender greens have a mustardy taste and can be eaten raw or lightly cooked in soups.

Winter melon: Winter melon has green skin covered with a waxy coating, giving it the name “wax gourd.” Chinese chefs hollow out the melons, carve dragons or other symbols into their waxy skins, and use them as decorative soup bowls. Winter melons are used in stir-fries and soups, but the flesh can also be dried and crystallized. Candied winter melon is often eaten at Chinese New Year.

Yu choy: With its thin stalks and bright yellow flowers, yu choy is similar to broccoli rabe but sweeter. Look for flower buds that are tight and just beginning to bloom. The crunchy stalks can be sautéed with garlic or oyster sauce.

Growing cucamelons in a garden

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What’s the most popular crop in our vegetable garden? Easy! It’s cucamelon. The fruits, which look exactly like tiny watermelons, rarely make it into the kitchen; instead, we gobble them up by the handful, straight from the vines. The plant is a distant relative of cucumbers, and these inch-long fruits do have a cucumber-like flavor with a pleasing citrus tang. Growing cucamelons in garden beds and containers is an easy way to enjoy this unusual vegetable.

This post is an excerpt from Niki Jabbour’s Veggie Garden Remix © Niki Jabbour. Used with permission from Storey Publishing.

In my zone 5 garden, the cucamelon harvest begins in late July and stretches into late October.

Our family loves trying different kinds of cucumbers. Each summer, our cucumber beds are planted with at least a dozen species and varieties, but few look like “traditional” cucumbers. As you walk the pathways between the beds, you might notice the slender twisted fruits of ‘Painted Serpent’ hiding beneath a mound of foliage, or the weird kiwi-shaped fruits of ‘Little Potato’ climbing an A-frame trellis. You’ll also see some of the more popular heirloom cucumbers, like ‘Lemon’, ‘Crystal Apple’, ‘Boothby’s Blonde’, and ‘Poona Kheera’. And you’ll definitely find one that isn’t related but nonetheless tastes like a cucumber — the cucamelon!

Growing cucamelons – cute & crunchy!

Very rarely, you might find cucamelons at the farmers’ market, but they can fetch up to $20 a pound! The price alone makes it worth growing cucamelons for yourself. They’re an easy crop; the vines are very productive, and they’re rarely troubled by the many insects and diseases that plague cucumbers.

Impatient gardeners will find cucamelons slow to start in the garden, with growth not taking off until the summer weather heats up. That said, they will tolerate a cooler spring better than cucumbers do, and once they’re established, cucamelons are quite a bit more drought tolerant. The vines are delicate looking, with thin stems and small leaves, but don’t be fooled! This is a plant that can hold its own in the garden. People with limited growing space can plant them in large pots on a deck or patio; just be sure to provide something for the vigorous vines to climb.

Most of our cucamelons are eaten right out of the garden, but we also add them to salads and salsa, and pickle them.

Growing cucamelons – when to harvest?

About a week after you see the first flowers, begin checking for ripe cucamelons. They tend to hide behind the foliage, so look closely. Once they’re about an inch long, start picking. The sourness of the skin intensifies as the fruits age, so pick them young if you want to minimize the citrus bite. We start picking the first fruits in late July or early August, with the last few plucked from the vines in October.

Cucamelons are open-pollinated and produce both male and female flowers on the same plant, so you can save the seed from any ripe fruits that fall to the ground. Warm-climate gardeners will find that a few cucamelons left behind will self-seed quite easily.

There are so many ways to use these fun fruits. As the name suggests, they’re perfect for pickling! We eat them out of hand, pack them in the kids’ lunch boxes, and take them along to picnics and barbecues. You could even pop them into your gin and tonic.

Growing cucamelons – start to finish!

Growing cucamelons is easy! Start the seeds indoors 6 weeks before your last spring frost. Sow the seed in 4-inch pots to give the plants a chance to develop a substantial root system before planting out and to minimize transplant shock. Once the risk of frost has passed, harden off the young plants and move them to the garden.

Gardeners in northern regions with unpredictable late-spring weather may wish to protect young plants with cloches or a mini hoop tunnel. Open the ends of the tunnel during the day to regulate temperature and allow air to circulate. I usually leave the mini tunnel in place for 2 to 3 weeks, depending on how quickly summer arrives, then replace it with a trellis.

Heat, sun, and rich soil are the keys to growing success with these plants, so pick a site with full sun and amend the soil with aged manure or compost.

Cucamelon plants are vigorous vines that are best grown up trellises, tunnels, or other supports.

Seriously consider trellising the plants. We grow ours on sturdy A-frame trellises; this keeps the foliage and fruit off the ground, which minimizes the risk of diseases and makes harvesting a snap. Also, unsupported plants will sprawl in every direction, quickly taking over a garden bed.

If you want to save the seeds of heirloom cucumbers and cucumber-like plants, such as burr cucumber, just let a few fruits ripen fully on the vines, or collect any fallen fruits at the end of summer. Scoop out the seeds, which will be surrounded by a gel-like coating, and place them in a container, along with a small amount of water. Leave the mixture to ferment for 3 days (expect mold to form on the surface). The good seeds will sink to the bottom of the container; when this happens, pour off the mold, pulp, and water. Rinse the seeds left at the bottom of the container with fresh water until clean. Spread them on paper towels or a clean dishcloth and let dry for at least a week. Store the fully dried seeds in envelopes.

Cucamelon facts:

A.K.A.: Mexican sour gherkin, mouse melon, Melothria scabra

Days to maturity: 75 days from transplanting

Hails from: Mexico and Central America

Want to learn more about cucamelons? Check out Niki’s post on how to overwinter cucamelon tubers HERE.

To order your copy of Niki’s latest book, Niki Jabbour’s Veggie Garden Remix, click HERE.

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  • With its elegant white trumpet flowers, spiny seed capsules, and fragrant evening blooms, Jimsonweed ranks as one of my favorite butterfly garden plants.

    The native datura inoxia partners well with another favorite, Cowpen Daisy. Plant them together and you’ll have sprays of yellow and white blooms throughout the scorching summer, well into October. Both plants gracefully defy our brutal heat, need little water or care, resist disease and pests and attract butterflies and moths.

    Jimsonweed climbs to three feet and spreads an equal distance. It creates a handy shady mass that protects less sturdy plants. Up until this past week, Jimsonweed’s shade shielded verbena from frying and saved my tropical milkweed, too. The plant is versatile, attractive and easy-to-grow.

    Jimsonweed bloom. Do you see the caterpillar?

    What else does this member of the potato family have to offer?

    Its spiny seed pods provide an unusual garnish–or should I say gardenish? The thorny balls would make delightful earrings, or at least play a starring role in an exotic ikebana flower display.

    As summer wears on, the walnut-sized pods turn from green to brown, spreading seed wantonly in the garden, making this durable perennial almost impossible to defeat once established. The lush, large leaves of Jimsonweed also exude a chocolatey smell when watered or handled.

    Spiny Jimsonweed seedpod dusted with caterpillar frass

    Another bonus: the captivating Sphinx moth, whose large size and brazen daytime flying cause it to be confused with small hummingbirds, hosts on Jimsonweed. Sphinx moth caterpillars have a reputation with tomato gardeners as the despised tomato or tobacco hornworm, which is beautiful upon close inspection. Look for it in the photo of the Jimsonweed bloom, above.

    August butterfly garden: Cowpen Daisy, Jimsonweed, tropical milkweed, Texas lantana

    Underappreciated Jimsonweed does have a down side. As a member of the nightshade family, it contains tropane alkaloids, the same toxins as belladonna, used in ancient times on poison-tipped arrows. All parts of Jimsonweed are poisonous. Native Americans used the leaves as a painkiller and as an hallucinogen.

    Recent reports have reckless teens using Jimsonweed as a cheap high, but they should beware. Hospital stays, even death, can result.

    Jimsonweed’s namesake may represent one of the first instances of ethnobotanical warfare in American colonial history. Amy Stewart explains in her delightful book, Wicked Plants, that in Jamestown, Virginia, in the late 1600s, “British soldiers arrived to quell one of the first uprisings at the fledgling colony and the settlers remembered the toxic plant and slipped datura leaves into the soldiers’ food.”

    They survived, but hallucinated severely for eleven days, giving Virginia colonists a temporary upper hand. The assisting plant became known as Jamestown weed, and later, Jimsonweed.

    • Balloon plant, Gomphocarpus physocarpus.

      Gomphocarpus (=Asclepias) physocarpus is a plant in the milkweed family (in the subfamily Asclepiadoideae of the Apocynaceae, formerly the Asclepiadaceae) often used as an ornamental for the striking yellowish, ball-like fruits. The name physocarpa comes from the Greek physa meaning bladder and karpos, fruit, referring to the inflated, bladder-like fruits. It has a plethora of common names including balloon plant, balloon cotton-bush, balloon milkweed, bishop’s balls, elephant balls, hairy balls, monkey balls, swan plant, and many others. This quick-growing, short-lived species native to tropical Africa is used as a seasonal annual in the Midwest, although it is actually a tender perennial (zones 8-10). It has naturalized in many places in the world, and is a weed in many areas with a mild climate. There is a very similar plant, G. fruticosus, which is less common in the ornamental trade. It is smaller in stature, not as vigorous, and the seed pod is slightly oblong (supposedly resembling a swan). But the common names of “swan” and “balloon” plant are used interchangeably for both species.

      The leaves are narrow and lanceolate.

      Balloon plant is an upright, herbaceous plant or soft shrub that can grow over 6 feet tall from the fibrous roots. The slender, single-stemmed trunk has multiple hollow, pale yellowish green branches. The smooth textured, light green, opposite leaves are 3-4 inches long. They are narrowly oblong to lanceolate. All parts of this plant exude milky white latex that is mildly poisonous if ingested.

      Pendulous clusters of small, waxy flowers with a faint vanilla scent are borne in leaf axils primarily in summer. Each flower is about ½ inch across, with five strongly reflexed petals arching over the corona composed of pouched lobes that develop from the petals. The petals are white to cream-colored while the corona is suffused with pink or purple. The corona surrounds a staminal column enclosing two carpels, the tips of which are united and enlarged to form the style head – a yellowish, 5-lobed disc in the center of the flower (a cyme). The anthers are fused to the style head and the pollen is held in two waxy pollinia (pollen sacs). This plant is self-incompatible, so it requires pollen from a different plant to set seed. The flowers are visited by many different insects, but are only pollinated by vespid wasps and hornets. When the wasp visits a flower, the leg or mouthparts get trapped so the pollinia get attached to the insect, and when it visits another flower it gets trapped again so the pollinia are detached to pollinate the new flower.

      The unusual waxy flowers emerge from tight buds (L) and may be all white (R) or suffused with pink or purple (C).

      The pods are covered with long hair-like spines.

      Flowers are followed by unusual fruits that look like hairy, inflated spheres. The pale green, soft, almost translucent, bladder-like follicles, covered with soft hair-like spines, swell to up to 3 inches in diameter. The follicles become yellowish, often tinged with red or brown, when mature, and very gradually split open to release the numerous brown seeds. Each smooth, flattened oval seed has a tuft of long, silky hairs (a pappus) at one end which aids in dispersal by wind. Cut long stems with pods to use in fresh and dried floral arrangements.

      The softly spiny pods (L) become inflated (C) and eventually release the seeds, each with a hairy pappus (R).

      The unusual fruits add texture and interest in the garden.

      Stems with pods can be cut to use in floral arrangements.

      Balloon plant is an unusual addition to a mixed bed, the back of an annual border, as a specimen plant, or in large containers. The unusual spherical fruits add interest and texture, and the flowers, although not particularly showy, attract butterflies. The plant itself tends to have a vase shape when grown as an annual, but can grow quite large, so position it appropriately. Or grow in the cutting garden just for cutting the stems to use in floral arrangements.

      Gomphocarpus prefers full sun and sandy, well-drained but moderately moist soil. Plants may be slow to develop and bloom too late in our short growing season to develop the distinctive fruits if grown in partial shade. Monarch caterpillars may feed on the foliage, and aphids can sometimes infest plants, but deer do not favor this plant.

      Place balloon plant behind shorter annuals.

      Although it is a perennial and could be overwintered indoors in bright light, this plant grows best if replaced every year, as it tends to get large and scraggly after the first year.

      Collect seed from ripe pods just as they burst open.

      Balloon plant is easily propagated from seed. Ripe seed is readily collected from the fruits as they start to split open. If frost threatens before the seeds ripen (120-130 days are needed for maturity), branches with large pods can be cut and kept in water to give the seeds more time to mature. Sow indoors 6-8 weeks before the last frost to transplant into the ground when the soil has warmed and all threat of frost is past. Barely cover the seed, as light aids germination. Seeds should germinate in 1-3 weeks. Plants can also be propagated from stem or leaf cuttings.

      – Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin – Madison


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      Garden News Blog

      Weed of the Month: Jimson Weed

      By Saara Nafici | September 20, 2016

      Jimson weed (Datura stramonium) is a beautiful, witchy plant that begins blooming in late summer and continues through the first frost. A member of the notorious nightshade family, its more famous cousins include tomato, eggplant, pepper, tobacco, and potato. Most members of this plant family are poisonous, and jimson weed is no exception. All parts of the plant are toxic, most particularly the seeds. Potent amounts of alkaloid compounds are present, which potentially cause convulsions, hallucinations, and even death if ingested. And as climate change increases the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, studies have found that the toxicity of plants like jimson weed only increases.

      The genus name Datura comes from the Hindi word for the plant, noteworthy since most botanical names are derived from Latin or Greek. The origins of the plant itself are contested—every source I checked listed a different native origin, ranging from Mexico to India, and it now grows all over the world. Not surprisingly, it has found its way into many cultural and medicinal traditions. Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, and Native American shamanistic practices all employ jimson weed medicinally or ritualistically. Its seeds and leaves are used as an antiasthmatic, antispasmodic, hypnotic, and narcotic.

      Having grown up in Virginia, I was intrigued by one of the common names I saw recurring in my plant books—Jamestown weed—and researched the origins. One story simply connects the first New World observations of the plant to settlers in this early Virginia colony. A more famous tale tells of the plant’s accidental ingestion by some British soldiers sent there to suppress Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. After eating some in a stew, the soldiers spent 11 days in a hallucinatory stupor, blowing feathers, kissing and pawing their companions, and making faces and grinning “like monkey.”

      Jimson weed’s white to purple blooms are fragrant at night, attracting moths and other nocturnal pollinators, a common trait in white-bloomed plants. The rest of the plant, however, is stinky! Crush and sniff the oaklike leaves, and you’ll understand why domesticated and wild animals avoid eating this plant—it smells a bit like feet. Indeed, accidental poisonings tend be more common among humans than among other animals.

      Though the trumpet-shaped flowers are stunning, my favorite part of the plant is the devilish-looking seedpod. The size of a Ping-Pong ball and covered in spikes, the seed capsule splits into four parts like a monster’s maw, revealing the dark brown seeds inside. In the winter you might notice its tall, dry stalks bearing the prickly seedpods, which to me look like the scepter for a demon. With all its extraordinary looks and lore, jimson weed is a fascinating plant to contemplate (but maybe not cultivate)!

      THORN-APPLE

      Not to be confused semantically with : Apple-of-Peru (a member of the same family) or Apple Mint nor with Apple nor Crab Apple

      Easily mistaken for : Longspine Thorn-Apple (Datura ferox) which is in the same genus but has more robust and longer spines on the fruit. Other size differences are also apparent: smaller calyx 2.5-4cm (3-5cm for Thorn-apple), shorter calyx teeth 3 – 5mm (4-10mm for Thorn-apple, smaller corolla 4-6cm (5-10cm for Thorn-apple), larger fruit capsule 5-8mm including spines (3-7mm for Thorn-apple), longer spines stout 10-30mm long (slender and 2-15mm for Thorn-apple and spineless in var. inermis). Longspine Thorn-apple also has some spines with a very broad base and longer than 20mm.

      Many similarities to : Angel’s Trumpets (a plant belonging to the same Nightshade Family, which also has similar trumpet shaped white flowers and a spiky fruit (but which has wider but fewer thorns)

      Some similarities to : the Bindweeds (Convolvulaceae) such as Hedge Bindweed, Large Bindweed and Field Bindweed in that the flowers have some similarities, but the leaves and stance totally different (bindweeds climb, Thorn-apple doesn’t).

      Slight resemblance to : Apple-of-Peru (Nicandra physalodes) but that has pale blue-white trumpet-shaped flowers and less to Cape Gooseberry (Physalis peruviana) but that has a much shorter trumpet which is pale yellow in colour.

      The thorny fruit pod has a superficial resemblance to those of : Sweet Chestnuts

      Grows in waste places, as an arable weed, or in gardens, preferring a calcareous soil. Nitrogen fertilisers will increase the proportions of tropane alkaloids produced within the plant. It is native to North America, where it is known as Jimson Weed.

      Flowers and leaves of a similar shape to those of Apple-of-Peru, but rather than being light blue and with a white inner, the flowers are greeny-white with a greenish inner. The leaves lack the black glandular trichomes and the black, five-flanged flower buds of present on Apple-of-Peru. It is also in a different Genus (Datura) than that of Apple-of-Peru (Nicandra), although it is in the same Nightshade Family.

      It possesses much the same Tropane Alkaloids as does Henbane, such as Hyoscamine, Scopolamine and Atropine but not necessarily in the same proportions, nor indeed in the same concentration. Indeed, the Datura Genus is renown for the highly variable concentrations of these alkaloids, varying in concentration by up to 5:1 depending upon soil conditions, growing site, the climate, the weather and a host of other variable ill-defined factors. See Henbane for a description of the Tropane Alkaloids (present to variable degrees) in Thorn-Apple.

      Atropine has been in use medicinally for treating asthma attacks for many years. It causes paralysis of the pulmonary branches of the lungs thus preventing the abnormal contraction of the bronchioles which restricts the amount of air the sufferer can breath during an attack. Those with heart conditions should avoid this medicine based on Datura extracts, which can also precipitate hallucinations which persists for several days. However, the therapeutic range is very small, a slight overdose often results in hospitalizations or even death. Thorn-Apple is highly toxic.

      Sacred Datura (Datura wrightii), widely known as Jimson Weed, is blooming and will continue into late summer. This perennial plant occurs from central California to Texas and Mexico and into northern South America.

      The pretty, lily-like white flowers can reach up to six inches long and three inches wide. The dark green leaves are sticky and can give off an unpleasant odor when crushed. The whole plant can reach five feet tall and several feet wide.

      Datura produces a golf-ball sized, melon-like fruit which is covered with spikes, hence its other name “Thorn apple.”

      Datura has a large tuberous root which allows the plant to survive cold winters that may kill the above-ground foliage.

      The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum warns:

      “All parts of these plants contain numerous toxic alkaloids. One of them is scopolamine, a common ingredient in cold and nausea remedies. Shamans in various cultures have ingested datura to induce visions. This is one of the most dangerous plants used for this purpose, because not only do individual plants vary in potency, but humans also differ in their tolerance to the toxins. Despite widely-published warnings, every year a few people suffer life-threatening poisoning from eating this plant; some of them don’t survive.”

      ASDM also notes: “This beautiful plant is a useful ornamental if there is sufficient space for its large size and one is willing to put up with its winter disappearance below ground.
      Hawkmoths pollinate the flowers and lay eggs on the foliage. The caterpillars (called “hornworms” in this family) incorporate the plant’s toxins into their own tissues and become toxic to their potential predators.”

      James W. Cornett, in his book “Indian Uses of Desert Plants” also warns of the toxicity and notes many other uses for this plant.

      “A paste made from the leaves and stems was applied to broken bones and swollen joints to reduce or eliminate pain. Inhalation of fumes given off by burning or boiling the leaves was effective in relieving respiratory aliments.”

      Patches of Sacred Datura grow in several exhibits at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The animals in these exhibits leave it alone and so should you.

      Learn more about desert plants from these ADI articles:

      A Boojum, definitely a boojum

      Agaves provide food, fiber and adult beverages

      Arizona Christmas Cactus

      Arizona’s Wild Cotton

      Brittlebush and chewing gum

      Cactus water will make you sick

      Chiltepin peppers, spice and medicine

      Creepy Creeping Devil Cactus

      Creosote Bush

      Desert Broom – another medicinal plant

      Desert Mistletoe

      Desert Ironwood

      Desert Tobacco, a Pretty but Poisonous Desert Plant

      Invasion of the Popcorn Flowers

      Joshua Trees of the Mohave Desert

      Life on a Dead Saguaro

      Limberbush

      London Rocket

      Medusa’s Head a strange and useful plant

      Mesquite trees provide food, fuel, medicine, and more

      Oak trees of the Sonoran Desert region

      Ocotillo – an aide to hummingbirds and geologists

      Palo Verde trees about to turn the desert golden

      Passion Flower

      Saguaro Cactus Icon of the Sonoran Desert

      Senita and Totem Pole Cacti

      Spectacular flowers of the red Torch Cactus

      The Jojoba bush and its valuable oil

      Yuccas provide food, fiber, and soap

      Wild Cucumber Vine – Learn About Wild Cucumber Control

      Wild cucumber vine is attractive and some people consider it worthy of ornamental status. To most gardeners, however, wild cucumber plants are pesky weeds. While the vine is not invasive, it is definitely aggressive. Read on to learn more wild cucumber facts and get tips for controlling its growth.

      What are Wild Cucumbers?

      Native to North America, the wild cucumber vine (Echinocystis lobata) is a rambunctious vine that can reach mature lengths of 25 feet in a hurry. Wild cucumber vine likes moist areas and is often found near ponds, streams, or in moist meadows or bottomland. However, the vine can pop up in typically dry areas when rainfall levels are higher than average.

      Wild cucumber plants climb up vertical surfaces by wrapping their clingy tendrils around anything in their path. The vine can do considerable damage to trees and shrubs by blocking sunlight. However, it makes an attractive plant growing over a pergola, fence or arbor, especially when the plant is covered with tiny white flowers, beginning in midsummer.

      Wild Cucumber Control

      The best way to control wild cucumber vines is to hoe or pull the plants as soon as you notice them in spring. If you don’t notice them early in the season, you can mow the vines repeatedly to keep them in check. The most important thing is to get rid of the vines before they go to seed.

      If the vines are climbing up trees, shrubs or the side of your house, pull them off as soon as possible and discard them safely – not in a compost pile.

      Chemical control of wild cucumber plants is ill-advised. If you decide to use herbicides, read the product label carefully and use the product only as recommended. Products containing glyphosate may be effective against young plants and the herbicide, which isn’t taken up by the bark and roots, is generally safe to use around trees and shrubs. However, spray drift will kill nearly any green plant it contacts.

      Some types of herbicides will kill the vine, but they will also kill trees and shrubs when the chemicals are absorbed into the soil and through the roots. Rain or irrigation can spread the herbicides, putting non-targeted plants in jeopardy.

      Is Wild Cucumber Fruit Edible?

      This is an often-asked question, and the answer is, unfortunately, no. Although wild cucumbers are related to the familiar, domestic vegetable, the prickly “cucumbers” consist not of fleshy fruit, but of two seed chambers containing lacy netting. The netting holds four large seeds in place until the fruit ripens and the seeds drop to the ground to begin a new vine.

      Pumpkins, zucchini, yellow squash, gourds, the members of the Cucurbitaceae family are ripe and ready to eat in North America.

      In Pennsylvania’s moist thickets you’ll also find wild and bur cucumbers … but don’t eat them!

      Wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata) is an annual vine that can be unruly at this time of year. After a summer of growing, climbing and blooming it has thrown its tendrils around trees and over bushes. Its spiny cucumber fruits hang at intervals along the vine waiting to dry out and explode the seeds in all directions.

      The seeds take up a big part of the fruit as you can see from this sliced one. I wonder if any animals eat this…

      A look-alike plant with even smaller, spikier fruits is the Bur cucumber (Sicyos angulatus). Its clustered “cucumbers” aren’t edible and frankly look dangerous because the ratio of spines to fruit is a lot higher.

      Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide separates these plants by their flower parts but there are other hints as well:

      • Wild cucumber has six petals, Bur has five.
      • Wild has smooth stems. Bur has sticky hairs on its stem.
      • Wild has deeply lobed leaves. Bur has broad, heart-shaped leaves.
      • Wild’s fruits hang separately. Bur’s fruits are in clusters.
      • Wild’s fruits are about the size of the leaves (can be 2″). Bur’s fruits are small.

      Dianne and Bob Machesney found the wild ones at the Butler-Freeport Trail and burs at Green Cove in Washington County.

      If you want to eat a cucumber, go for the real thing in the garden or grocery store. It’s been cultivated for 3,000 years.

      (photos by Dianne Machesney)

      Wild cucumber vine

      There’s been an explosion of a certain species of light green vine the past few weeks, prompting many to wonder what’s growing all over their fences, gardens and the side of the road. Its strange, spiky fruit only adds to the mystery. What could this prolific plant be? A local television station interviewed me yesterday to ask me about this plant people are seeing across the state. Good Question: What Is That Light Green Vine Growing Rampant?

      Wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata) is a native, annual vine found throughout much of the United States and all of Minnesota. This vine has hand-sized, star-shaped leaves growing throughout the growing season. Early to mid-August very conspicuous small white flowers on long stalks grow skyward, making this vine go from an unnoticeable background plant to a very conspicuous large vine. It’s often very noticeable along roadsides, forest edges, hedgerows and fences. The fruit is a small, cucumber-like spiny pod. Honestly, it more closely resembles a very small spiky watermelon. When the seed pod is fully mature it will explode when touched, ejecting the seeds. Check out this slow motion video: Exploding cucumbers!

      As a native it’s generally considered non-problematic, although if it’s growing on your garden, beloved tree or cherished fencerow you may view it as a weed. Hand-pulling is the best option for removal; foliar herbicides are not recommended because they are likely to negatively impact nearby vegetation, such as the plants the vine is growing on. If you hand pull before flower and seed production you’ll likely to have less wild cucumber the following year.

      Angie Gupta is an Extension educator with a focus on forest invasive species and private forest land management. She is based at the UMN Extension Rochester Regional Office.

      Flowering wild cucumber covering a dead spruce tree.

      In late summer you may notice trees or shrubs festooned with crowns of white flowers that obviously are not the woody plant blooming. Look closely and you’ll notice the leaves and individual flowers look just like that of cucumber – this is wild cucumber or balsam-apple, Echinocystis lobata. The name Echinocystis comes from the Greek echinos for “hedgehog” and cystis for “bladder”, appropriately describing the spiny fruit.

      A vining native annual in the cucumber or gourd family (Cucurbitaceae), wild cucumber is often overlooked until it is large and sometimes has engulfed the other plants it is growing on. It occurs throughout much of North America, including all of Wisconsin. Its native habitat is along streambeds, swamps, and moist thickets or roadsides.

      A seedling wild cucumber.

      It is not common in home landscapes, but will occasionally be spread from adjacent rural areas.

      As a fast-growing, warm season annual, wild cucumber grows from seed each year, germinating after the last frost. The large, oval cotyledons look just like that of a regular cucumber. The smooth, fleshy stems are grooved lengthwise. The large, alternate leaves are palmate with 3-5 pointed lobes. Each is borne on a long petiole. The branching vines can grow up to 25 or 30 feet long, climbing onto other foliage with curling, 3-forked tendrils that arise from the leaf axils. The tendrils coil when they touch anything to attach onto for support.

      The palmate leaves are deeply lobed (L). Curling tendrils arise from leaf axils (R).

      Wild cucumber in full flower.

      Starting in mid-summer the vines begin to produce fragrant, pale yellowish-white flowers. The plants are monoecious (separate male and female flowers are produced on the same plant) and the flowers are pollinated by insects. The numerous male flowers form in clusters on a long, erect raceme from the leaf axils. Each ½ – ¾ inch wide flower has 6 long, thin petals, giving a star-like appearance. The filaments of the three stamens form a column, with the yellow anthers on the end. The female flowers occur singly or in pairs interspersed among the male flowers, with a small, rounded spiny ovary below the yellow-green petals.

      The male flowers are produced in large racemes (L), with each flower having 6 long, thin petals (R).

      Superficially the fruit resembles a small and rounded cultivated cucumber, but with prickles all over it. The puffy, spherical to oblong, green pods with long, soft spines grow up to two inches long. Despite the common name, the fruits are not edible, and can cause burning reactions in some people. The pods can be used in dried flower arrangements.

      Female flowers have a prickly ovary beneath the petals, which quickly develops into the spiny fruit.

      When ripe, the fruit becomes dry and brown and the inflated capsules burst open at the bottom to eject the seeds. Each pod contains four large, flat black or brown seeds, two in each of the two cavities in the pod. The fruits should be bagged well before maturity if you wish to collect seed, as they are forcibly expelled by hydrostatic pressure as soon as the pods are dry.

      The mature fruits (L) dry out (C) and expel the dark brown or black seeds (R).

      Wild cucumber can look like strings of green Chinese lanterns hanging in a tree.

      Wild cucumber can be cultivated as an ornamental annual vine, and would be great for covering arbors and pergolas, or for rambling horizontally along fences, walls and other low structures. It does best in full sun and rich, moist soil. Seed can be sown directly outdoors as soon as the soil warms, or seeds can be started early indoors to be transplanted outside after the last frost. Only a few suppliers offer seed (one is Prairie Moon Nursery in Minnesota at www.prairiemoon.com/), so you may have to collect your own seed in the fall to grow the following year.

      Wild cucumber is an aggressive vine that can nearly smother small trees.

      Even though this is an attractive native plant, it is generally considered a weed when climbing on planted trees because of its aggressive growth. It is easily controlled in the home landscape by pulling or hoeing the young plants. Plants will self-seed readily, so controlling before the plants begin to flower and fruit is important for reducing infestations. Chemical control can be used over larger areas, such as shelter belts.

      Another similar, but less common, plant is bur cucumber, Sicyos angulatus, but that plant is easily differentiated by the degree of indentation of the leaf lobes and the fruits. Wild cucumber has deeply lobed leaves and inflated fruits, while bur cucumber has broad, shallowly lobed leaves and the fruit is much smaller and not inflated.

      – Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin – Madison


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      Cucumbers…Take Cover!

      Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol

      There is a plant found near streams and rivers in our area that has almost magical properties for little boys. It is almost as if grown-ups can’t see it. Little girls see the plant differently and may, like adults, overlook it entirely unless its most significant feature has just whacked them in the head.

      I’ve heard the fruit of this plant called “prickly pods” and “cactus balls.” My daughter insists on “mini cactus.” Yesterday, two 8-year-old boys told me a story about its name that was almost identical to one I read on the Internet a month ago. “Porcupine eggs!” a conspiratorial adult had told them when they had asked what the plant was. They thought that was really funny.

      “Prickly cucumber” is the common name of this plant, which works for me. It is also known as wild cucumber and wild balsam apple.

      The plant is a vine with greenish white flowers and leaves that are sometimes described as maple-like, but to me they look more like a sweet gum leaf, since the leaves have pointier “fingers” and less of a “palm” than the leaves of a sugar maple.

      But it’s the fruit of this plant that makes it more than just another streamside vine. The prickly cucumber has an oval, prickly fruit about 2 inches long that dangles down. While it is called “cucumber” and is related to the eating variety of cucumber, it’s a distant relative. Prickly cucumbers are clearly not for eating. There is no way you would want to put a prickly cucumber in your mouth. Its outsides, at best, resemble a kiwi fruit. At worst, they look like something that should swing from a stick as a weapon for a really small medieval knight.

      Its insides are stringy, like a loofah sponge with a few watermelon seeds in it. It doesn’t say “eat me,” it says “exfoliate.”

      A similar-looking, similar-sounding plant grows in the same habitat as the prickly cucumber. The difference is subtle. The bur cucumber has a cluster of grape-sized, prickly fruits. The prickly cucumber’s fruit is larger and grows alone. The bur cucumber looks like a bur. The prickly cucumber is distinctly more egg-like in size and shape. It really is no wonder people call them porcupine eggs.

      The scientific name of the prickly cucumber is Echinocystis lobata, which is Greek for ‘lobed hedgehog bladder’. This is where the girls come in. “Lobed” is for the leaf of the plant. “Bladder” is for all those empty spaces in the loofah-like interior of its fruit. The hedgehog actually comes from the Greek word for spiny. When the fruit has dried, its prickles relax a little, and it looks even more like a tiny porcupine or hedgehog.

      One girl I know likes to keep them around as a sort of pet. While not exactly cuddly, they are quiet, fit nicely in a pocket, and you don’t have to clean up after them.

      Last fall, prickly cucumbers were all the rage, as both weapons and pets, at both of my children’s schools. I had never seen them before, but Bob Popp, the botanist for the Vermont Nongame and Natural Heritage program, tells me that, as an annual, the prickly cucumber’s populations are likely to vary from one year to the next “depending upon conditions the previous year being favorable to fruit production and conditions of the current year being favorable to germination .”

      I wonder if last year’s hot, wet summer had anything to do with the bumper crop of prickly cucumbers. The prickly cucumber is one of the northernmost members of its mostly tropical extended plant family, which includes cucumbers, pumpkins, melons, squashes, and, yes, loofah sponges. It is native in our area. It grows in nearly all parts of Vermont and New Hampshire, except for the far northern reaches. It grows, as a native, as far south as Florida and Texas. On the West Coast, it is a pesky invasive.

      Fall is the best time of year for identifying the prickly cucumber, because, as other foliage withers and falls away, the cucumbers suddenly appear, hanging from vines atop fences and shrubs. Young boys are particularly adept at locating the small fruits, especially in years when crabapples and other missiles are in short supply. The fruits will linger on the vine after the first frost and are best spotted in September and October.

      But if the boys find them first – take cover.

      Madeline Bodin is a freelance writer who lives in Andover, Vermont.

      Species Spotlight: Wild Cucumber (Marah macrocarpa)

      As you are out exploring Cabrillo National Monument, you might notice a vine canopying across the coastal sage scrub with some unique dangling fruit. This is Marah macrocarpa, also known as the Wild Cucumber or Cucumonga Manroot. The Wild Cucumber is a perennial herb or vine that is native to Southern California and Baja California. It has small white flowers and fruit that resemble a spiky ball. The Wild Cucumber blooms in late winter and is noticeable by its lime green vines wiring through the coastal sage scrub. These vines can climb to a length of up to 20 feet during the wet season and have a curled effect to attach to nearby vegetation. The vines emerge from a large, hard tuberous root that can extend several meters and weigh over 200 pounds. One manroot found by Rancho Santa Ana Bontanic Garden was reported to weigh 467 pounds after being removed from the soil! When you come across a Wild Cucumber, trace the vines back to the root and try to estimate how large its manroot may be.
      For the Wild Cucumber, both the flowers and fruit have adapted significantly to ensure its survive for the next year. The Wild Cucumber flowers are monoecious, meaning that both male and female flowers can be found on the same plant. Male flowers tend to be open clusters, whereas the swollen base distinguishes female flowers. Being monoecious, the Wild Cucumber can easily be self-fertilized for the next generation of Wild Cucumbers. As you take a closer look at these lovely white flowers, watch out for the fruit that can be a bit vicious at times. The Wild Cucumber fruit is typically bright green, ripening to yellow, spherical and covered in prickles of variable density and length. Their tough shell protects 4 or more large, hard, and very smooth seeds within the fruit. The fruit swells until it ripens, finally rupturing, and releasing the seeds. These seeds will then sprout in the late winter. The initial shoot emerges from the seed and grows downward into the ground. The shoot will then split, one portion beginning to swell to form the tuber and the second part growing to the surface to become the vine.
      Why do we see it at Cabrillo only part of the year?
      The Wild Cucumber is found in arid climates amongst washes, scrubs, or open areas like Cabrillo National Monument. It has one of the most hairy shoots, stems, and leaves of all the manroot species making it well adapted to this climate. The “hair” allows for protection from the sun as well as collection of water. The Wild Cucumber is a drought deciduous species that blooms in late winter in response to the increased rainfall and typically enters a dormant state during the extended summer months where it dies back completely and may not be seen until the following year.
      Does anyone eat the Wild Cucumber?
      Its name can be deceiving because in fact most animals, including humans, do not eat any part of the Wild Cucumber. The Wild Cucumber fruit has a bitter and distasteful taste even after ripening. However, because of its smell the manroot can be processed for a soap-like extract.

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