Saturday, November 30, 2013

South African Spiny Cucumber

The family Cucurbitaceae is a diverse family with many well known agricultural crops including gourds, squash and cucumbers. The genus Cucumis is probably known most for the delicious cucumber fruits of Cucumis sativa. However this genus has many other very interesting species one of which, Cucumis metuliferus, yields spiny edible fruits. The much less known Cucumis zeyheri, which I will be focusing on in this article, is a native to Africa. It is known as the South African Spiny Cucumber and can be found growing wild in some areas of South Africa. The plant vines profusely and grows well on the ground or climbing on fences or trellises. Although bitter the fruits can be eaten raw or pickled, but they may be better purposed as medicine. Because of their bitterness, the fruits may be used to induce vomiting, and they may contain compounds with medicinal properties. 

I've tried my hand at eating these fruits, and I'm rather dissatisfied. The fruits are indeed very bitter, plus they have a thick wall and many seeds. Waiting until the fruits are yellowed and fully ripened may reduce the bitterness. I find that growing the plants for ornamental value is more rewarding, and because they are native to a dry warm climate they grow very well in my backyard. Propagation by seed is very easy, and is identical to growing cucumbers or any melon by seed. Simply sow the seeds in spring about 1/4cm deep in soil and water periodically. It should be treated as an annual, growing quickly and setting fruit in a single season. I have found that this plant is relatively drought and pest tolerant, making it low maintenance. 

The purpose of making this article isn't to exhibit this plant's edibility, rather to showcase it as a potential candidate for crossing and breeding programs. In today's world water is very scarce and any drought tolerant plants should be examined as potential building blocks for the crops of the future. Additionally, its close relation to the agricultural cucumber makes this plant, and all others in the genus potential targets for crossing experiments. If this is your interest there is abundant literature and research done on this genus, and detailed information about previous crossing experiments and sexual boundaries exist.