Squirting Cucumber Plant Profile: Toxicity & Identification

Exploding fruit is the trademark of this vine

Squirting cucumber (Ecballium elaterium) fruit


Jason Kurt Easter / Getty Images

The squirting cucumber piques curiosity by its name alone. It is the only plant in the Ecballium genus and gets its unique name from its explosive, squirting fruits. When ripe or disturbed, their two-inch prickly fruits, which resemble cucumbers, burst off the vine and spew mucilage-covered seeds up to 20 feet from the plant.

Native to the Mediterranean area, you may see these plants on roadsides or in waste areas. Though fascinating, the squirting cucumber contains poisonous cucurbitacins, making the entire plant fatal if ingested in large amounts. They are also rapid spreaders thanks to their clever seed-spreading fruits and are often seen as weeds. Their showy display of bursting fruit can be observed during the summer months. 

Toxicity of Squirting Cucumbers

The squirting cucumber has a mixed past, being used in herbal remedies for some time. Now, however, this plant is not often used because of the harsh reactions it can cause on the body. It acts as a strong purgative and, in small doses, it may cause digestive upset, diarrhea, hemorrhaging, and kidney problems. In large doses it is fatal.

Because of the high levels of cucurbitacins (which, in smaller quantities, can also give regular cucumbers a bitter taste), the entire plant is toxic. Besides ingestion, the squirting cucumber can also cause a reaction from contact. Both the prickly hairs of the plant, common to plants in the gourd (Cucurbitaceae) family, and its unique mucilage-covered seeds can cause skin irritation and inflammation.  

However, its poisonous effects do not stop many from growing these unique plants as a curiosity. If you decide to grow this fascinating vine, be sure to wear protective equipment such as gloves and safety glasses. This will prevent any skin irritation from occurring, as well as protect your eyes from unexpected seed explosions. These safety measures are also needed when removing squirting cucumbers, since disturbing the plant will result in dislodged fruit and an explosion of seeds. 

Symptoms of Poisoning

Though toxic to anyone, the squirting cucumber can be especially aggravating in individuals with digestive problems or sensitive systems, such as the elderly.

Symptoms of poisoning from ingestion include vomiting, diarrhea, drooling, difficulty swallowing, hemorrhaging, or kidney problems. Contact with the squirting cucumber can also cause skin irritation and inflammation. 

Gardening Considerations

If you would like to grow this plant in your own garden, keep in mind that it can spread rather quickly. Its creeping vines can sprawl out as wide as three feet, and its explosive seed spreading mechanism may cause new squirting cucumber plants to pop up as far as 20 feet away from the parental plant. 

It likes moist, well-drained soil, and though it prefers rich soil conditions, it can tolerate poor soil. These plants are not picky when it comes to soil type or pH, but they demand full sun to grow well.

Botanical Name Ecballium elaterium  
Common Name Squirting cucumber
Plant Type Perennial vine
Mature Size Up to 3 feet long
Growing Conditions Full sun. Prefers rich, moist, well-drained soil, but can tolerate poor soil
Bloom Time Summer
Flower Color Yellow

Identification

Flower of squirting cucumber (Ecballium elaterium) plant
Bell-shaped yellow flower of squirting cucumber (Ecballium elaterium) plant
Squirting cucumber (Ecballium elaterium) vine
Squirting cucumber vine with foliage and fruit

Of course, the main hallmark of the squirting cucumber is its explosive fruit. These grow up to two inches in size, are blue-green, and are covered in straight hairs. However, before these infamous fruits appear, the squirting cucumber boasts bell-shaped, yellow flowers much like other cucumber or gourd plants. The leaves of these plants are heart-shaped, toothed, and covered in rough, straight hairs.

The squirting cucumber is a vine, meaning it will sprawl up to three feet in width. Though it is a vining plant, it does not have tendrils. This means the squirting cucumber naturally grows as ground cover, rather than climbing upward.

Where It’s Found

This unique plant is native to the Mediterranean and it thrives in USDA hardiness zones 9 to 11. Typically spotted along roadsides or other uncultivated areas, it is often seen as a weed.

How to Remove Squirting Cucumber

Removing a squirting cucumber is easy, though some care needs to be taken. Before attempting, be sure to wear good gardening gloves and eye protection. When you are ready to remove the plant, simply uproot it and discard it.

Even if you would like to grow this fascinating vine in your garden, you may need to uproot unwanted seedlings that pop up from this plant’s wide seed dispersal.

Squirting Cucumber vs. Cucumber 

Though the leaves and flowers of both the squirting cucumber (Ecballium elaterium) plant and the cucumber (Cucumis sativus) plant are similar, some key differences allow you to easily distinguish between the two.

Comparing the fruits of the two plants is the most obvious way to distinguish them. The squirting cucumber produces two-inch long fruits covered in straight hairs. They also explode. Regular cucumbers do not explode. Cucumbers also grow to be much longer than two inches, and smooth out before harvesting, losing any hairs they had when young.

The second way to distinguish squirting cucumber versus cucumber plants is by looking for tendrils. The squirting cucumber plant does not have tendrils, while the cucumber plant does. This allows the cucumber plant to vine up onto things while the squirting cucumber plant remains a ground cover unless supported.