WISH LIST: Ecballium elaterium, Squirting Cucumber

The ribald fruits of Ecballium elaterium, the Squirting Cucumber, look very much like robust poppy buds to unsuspecting passers-by.

“Most plants are grown in gardens because they’re attractive or because they provide food or flavouring. But the squirting cucumber, Ecballium elaterium, is grown because it’s rude.” – Christopher Lloyd and Graham Rice, Garden Flowers from Seed.

Statements like this catch my attention, given my current gardening context. Beauty, utility and relatively low maintenance are the primary considerations but this particular garden, the former home of the transgressive American writer William S. Burroughs, strongly suggests the cultivation of quite a few unusual, thorny, poisonous and rude plants. Nature has provided an abundance of poison ivy here but Ecballium elaterium shows promise in a more humorous, satiric direction, which was the essence of Burroughs’ writings. He probably never knew this plant but its right out of Naked Lunch. And when Graham Rice continues his description of Ecballium :

The fruits are not large, a very unprepossessing 2in/5cm, but nevertheless, when ripe, the slightest stroking sends a wet mush of seeds and jelly squirting out. 45ft/14m seems to be the record distance. Teenage girls and small boys seem to find it most amusing, but I’ve also seen straitlaced women of mature years rendered helpless with laughter and embarrassment at the sight of the plant performing in public by a Greek footpath.”

… Well, I’m hooked. And now I’m thinking of other rude plants. The flowers of Clitoria and the fruits of the Peter pepper come first to mind, then certain gourds. Amorphophallus titanum, perhaps, but despite taxonomy I find it more extraordinary than rude. A 45-foot ejaculation from a two-inch cucumber is the most lurid vegetable reference I’ve heard to date and certainly occasion for a party like those thrown by the legions who continue the ancient tradition of celebrating the flowering of the night-blooming Cereus. The Coming of the Ecballium. Imagine that on a party invitation. I think a lot of people would show up.

To my eye, Ecballium is a good-looking plant, with felty, crinkled leaves and typical, sulfur-yellow cucumber flowers.

Here’s a short video of Ecballium in action. And another.

E. elaterium is native to Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia, and has naturalized in the U.S. in Alabama, New York and Pennsylvania. Commonly regarded as a weed, it is generally hardy to Zone 9 but can self-sow in colder areas. Hot sun and poor soil suit it fine. Ecballium grows a foot tall and spreads three feet, bushy and trailing. Seeds are easy to germinate.

A search for seed showed few results, probably because of Ecballium’s weedy reputation. It is available at Horizon HerbsAnnie’s Annuals has it listed but currently out of stock.

If anyone has practical information about this rude Ecballium, I would be grateful to hear it.

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