Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

December 29, 2007

Hanging Hedghog Bladders

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:59 pm

  In the dry winter world of plants, the Spiny Cucumber fruit is a stand out. During the summer, this climbing vine blends in with the greenery and pretty much goes undetected. When the cold season strips all the foliage from the landscape the prickly globes of this plant steadfastly remain in suspended view. 

  As you might expect, the Spiny Cucumber- a.k.a. wild or mock cucumber – is a vine producing member of the cucumber family, but unlike their edible cousins are not people palatable. The late summer plant bears star-like leaves and fruit which resemble unshaved runt cucumbers. Their impressive array of stout spines gives them a distinctly unfriendly look, however.  Each oval fruit eventually produces four large seeds that fall earthward when the husk dries out.

 The dried “husks” that hang from the winter vine consist of a papery outer coating (the spine bearing part) encasing an intricate mesh pouch. This inner pouch is divided into two chambers.  Once the fleshy parts are gone, only the tough open weave of supporting veins remain.  Luffas, those odd looking face cleaning sponges sold in health and beauty departments, are larger denser versions of this dried out wild cucumber fruit (in other words, a similar structure on a related plant).

  The scientific name of this plant is Echinocystis lobata. In Greek, the technical name means Lobed Hedgehog Bladder, which pretty much says it all, doesn’t it.  One of the reasons that scientific names are so important is that they cut across all language barriers. For instance, our hedgehog plants are currently rampaging over the Polish & Serbian landscape as an invasive species. Their name has therefore been plastered throughout the European botanical literature, but they are rarely referred to as spiny cucumbers. The scientific name is used instead.  So, when you read “Zhrnuli sa poznatky o historickom a sú?asnom rozšírení invázneho druhu Echinocystis lobata na území Slovenska,” in one of the Polish technical journals you can clearly pick out the name of this plant. You may not know what they are saying about it, but at least you know they are referring to it.

  For all I know this particular article might be recommending the use of this plant as a face cleaning sponge. I would think the first order of business for any Polish entrepreneur looking to sell this product would be to immediately change the name from Hedgehog Bladder to something gentler like “Cucumber of Love”.

  I do know that one of the English language botany journals did have an article referring to the thigmotropic character of spiny cucumbers. When growing, the vine tendrils respond to touch and wrap around whatever surface they are in contact with. This slow motion climbing action is called a thigmotropic response. The tightly coiled tendrils, resulting from this response, remain long after the plant they were wrapping around has died.

  At this point I realize that I have cluttered you with some relatively useless information about a relatively simple subject.  That is my job and I take it seriously. As an antidote, I would like to leave you with a blessing. May the “Cucumber of simplicity” descend upon you and clear your mind for the season ahead.

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