Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 495-A   may 26, 1973
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

On sultry summer nights many a farm boy fishing for bullheads by the light of a kerosene lantern has wondered what smelled so good along the river bank. More than likely it was the night-blooming wild cucumber which has a delightful, refreshing odor -- something like a slice of watermelon. This fragrance made it a favorite vine for porch trellises and outdoor arbors where families used to enjoy the quiet of the evening.

The Wild Cucumber thrives in stream valleys and waste places over most of North America east of the Rockies. The large rough leaves are star-shaped and the small white flowers are borne in clusters. The fruit, or the cucumber itself, is about two inches long, an inch wide, spongy to the touch, and covered with weak spines. Inside are four large brown seeds which pop out as it ripens. This habit gives the name, Squirting Cucumber.

Another widespread wild species, the Bur Cucumber or Star Cucumber, is also called Nimble Kate because it is a high-climber with vines up to 50 feet long. It has large rough leaves and bears small bristly fruit in clusters, each with a single seed. Like the Squirting Cucumber, it is an annual, growing anew from the seed each year. In contrast, a wild species of the southwestern states, called Chilicothe or Man-in-the Ground, springs from an enormous perennial root, very bitter and as large as a man's body. Indians made hair oil out of its seeds which are produced in large, very prickly, green balls.

These wild cucumbers are the poor relations of that large -- mostly tropical -- Gourd Family which gives us all our cultivated watermelons, muskmelons, pumpkins, gourds, gherkins and cucumbers. The earmarks of this family are large lobed leaves, clinging tendrils and the vining habit. In addition, there are two types of flowers on each plant, the sexes being separated like Quakers in a meetinghouse.

Our edible cucumber has been cultivated for at least 3000 years in India where its wild ancestor still survives in the foothills of the Himalayas. Since then it has been introduced throughout all parts of the world as a field or garden crop where the climate is suitable. They were grown and appreciated in ancient Egypt and are mentioned in the books of Numbers and Isaiah, in the Old Testament, when the Hebrews remembered longingly the cucumbers and melons they had during their captivity. The Chinese have known them for at least fourteen centuries and, along with melons, they have been grown for ages in the famous floating gardens of Kashmir. In Russia they are prized above all other vegetables.

Cucumbers require an abundance of moisture and plant food. They thrive best, in the open, during August when the days are hot and the nights are moist and warm. Because of their tropical background, they are very sensitive to cold. A good vine yields 25 to 100 cucumbers during its life. Whether eaten raw or made into pickles, they are always picked green and must be picked every day.

Those delicious little sweet pickles we eat are only one day old.

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