I found some interesting seed case skeletons while walking along the Grand River in March and was curious about the plant they came from. Jennifer, from a Passion for Nature identified them for me and I have watched as the wild cucumbers have grown over the past few months.
The scientific name of this native species is Echinocystis lobata and the plant belongs to the cucumber family. (Greek echinos for "hedgehog" and cystis for "bladder," lobata is Latin for "lobed") In our area it is an annual and the vine reseeds itself in the wild. There are other types of wild cucumbers in warmer climates that are perennial plants.
The plant is inedible and all parts of it are very bitter. Historically, it has some medicinal uses.
The pulverized root is used as a poultice for headaches. A very bitter tea brewed from the roots is analgesic and is also used as a love potion. It is used as a bitter tonic for alleviating stomach troubles, kidney ailments, rheumatism, chills, fevers (source).
I read one account of a man who tasted the fruit and then went on to develop a latent poison oak type rash around his mouth that was very painful.
My mother told me she used to collect the dried seed pods during the war and along with the seed pods of the Common Milkweed, they were used for military equipment. The pods can be used in dried flower arrangements and the seeds have been used in native jewellery.
I really wasn't too concerned about finding a use for the plant and just enjoyed watching it develop. The tiny, six-petalled flowers bloomed in August and they looked like white lace along the sides of the trails. A couple of weeks ago, I took the picture of the prickly green fruit. It had already burst open at the distal end and some of the pods had started to dry out.
The vines are now dying back with the recent frosts and these green pods will dry to become interesting skeletons you can pick up next spring when the snows have melted. And the big black seeds will grow again by the river starting a new cycle of flower and fruit production.