One of the most frequently asked questions that I have gotten recently refers to a vining plant that looks like it is going to take over the world, or at least a few trees in the yard or a section of a shelterbelt. Sometimes it will grow along the edge of a corn or soybean field and cause a bit of trouble during harvest when it grows out and covers nearby plants. The plant has light green leaves and greenish-white flowers in clusters that are up above the foliage. The plant has tendrils which allow it to easily climb up on a fence, tree or shrub. The leaves look a bit like a maple leaf with several angular lobes to the leaf. The plant is called wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata). It is native to the eastern part of our region and often grows in road ditches, shelterbelts, and near streams and ponds. It does have some value for wildlife as it provides cover for small animals and birds.
It is called wild cucumber because its fruit looks like a small, rounded, spiny cucumber. The plant is in the Cucurbitaceae family so it is a relative of our garden cucumber but I would not advise slicing any of the fruit up for a salad. The fruit is not very fleshy and usually has four seeds, about ¾” long inside.
I am impressed by this annual plant in that it can grow up to 15’ long in one season and literally cover small trees in one season’s growth. While it may look a bit intimidating, it does not really harm trees very much since it climbs by attaching itself to small twigs and branches with its tendrils. A few of the people I have spoken with about this plant thought it might be kudzu, but thankfully that invasive plant does not survive in our climate. If you want to control wild cucumber, just pull it out of the ground or cut the stem off near the bottom of the vine. Since it is an annual it will die with a good frost too. But, there will likely still be viable seeds left by this plant so you can expect to see it again next year. If you don’t want it back, try to pull as much of the vine out of the trees and dispose of it. Watch for it to appear next year and pull or cut off the plants when you see it.