Botany Blueprint: The Wild Cucumber

Specimen #2: Wild Cucumber, Marah macrocarpus

esign-wise, I think we’d all conservatively agree that an object should never be regarded as both toy and weapon. But it might be time to reconsider that binary proposition. As evidence, I submit the following specimen: the seed capsules of Marah macrocarpus. By many accounts, they are severe. The spines are pointed, numerous, and large—most grow to 8 inches long. They skulk behind an innocuous cover of dancing white flowers, luxurious leaves, and thinly coiled pale green tendrils, all of which makes their discovery more shocking. But, then again, the spikes bend to the touch, and they camouflage well. The seed capsule doesn’t invite trouble, it just deters foragers — or foolish naturalists like myself — from interfering while the seeds inside mature. If it makes a difference, practically, the layers underneath are fragile and delicate. And, if it makes a difference, philosophically, from certain angles, the dehiscent seed case appears almost shocked at its own appearance (above).

Awaiting the ruling, the wild cucumber and its absurdly ferocious fruits can be found in Southern California’s arid regions. It grows vigorously by the coast but can also dominate in dry chaparral, preferably on an incline. A seed pod remains on the vine until its seeds have developed, at which point it splits open at the bottom. The brood of 4-12 seeds drops to the ground to disperse. Round and smooth, they roll to a new location (as always, preferably some distance from the parent plant). Only then does the plant eject the seed case: now empty, already drying, green turning to brown.

As a testament to the wild cucumber’s strategy, I’ll note the difficulty I had finding seed fruits on the ground. (No shortage of discarded cases, though.) The spikes are shed as a coherent skin, revealing a fibrous, woven lattice-work of airy layers and four cavities. These circular patterns and symmetries are a nice contrast to the somewhat chaotic linear spikes within which they are bound. I’ll also note that the seeds aren’t distributed as a group, which might increase the likelihood of each seed settling in unique locations. As the outlet widens, seeds deeper in the chamber are given passage. I observed this from a specimen I placed upright on top of a small Mason jar on my desk. Over the course of a couple days, twelve seeds dropped. The accompanying “plunk … plunk” was a pleasant and helpful announcement.

If the seeds are eaten, roll towards inhospitable grounds, or otherwise don’t germinate, the wild cucumber has an underground contingency solution. Buried beneath the stem is a massive tuber. Filled with water, and large enough to merit Marah macrocarpus‘ nickname “Old Man in the Ground,” the taproot is credited with the plant’s opportunistic regrowth after a fire or during a drought. It seems all but immortal, and will reliably regenerate. I haven’t dug one up myself, but from photographs I can say that the malformed growth does resemble a withered figure from the underground, horrifically bloated and twisted. When considered alongside the spiked fruit and the question of apparent harm, the buried old man is certainly more likely to haunt.

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