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Is it a Fruit or a Weapon?
by John Harmon
September 1, 2002

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There hasn't been any shortage of rain over the last couple of weeks and if it doesn't stop soon I'll have to seriously consider building an ark. Among all the plants and animals picked out to "weather" that first 40 days and nights of rain one of the strangest has to be the African cucumber.

I got some seeds for this plant in the spring and planted six out into the greenhouse. Never plant that many! They have taken over an area about twelve feet by eight feet and are still spreading. It isn't much of a surprise since this plant is now considered a weed after being introduced to Australia some 70 years ago.

The plant has been around and under cultivation for over 1500 years and is known by many names like African horned cucumber, jelly melon, hedged gourd and horned melon. You might find it in the stores called Kiwano. That is a name trademarked by an outfit called M.I. Exotics who hopes to market the fruit around the world. The scientific names are Cucumis metuliferus E. Mey. ex Naud or ex Schrad and it grows in semiarid regions of southern and central Africa (Kalahari desert) mainly Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Nigeria. It is found at low to medium altitudes along roadsides, fallow and abandoned lands and on the fringes of gullies. I can tell you for certain that given good conditions it will grow huge and attack any other plant it comes into contact with. It is not however self-pollinating. The plant produces both male and female flowers and in the greenhouse it will have to be pollinated by hand.

It looks like the head of a medieval mace. It's about softball size with dozens of thorns. Very large and sharp thorns! The thorns are like the ones on roses only larger. I've also discovered that the entire plant is covered with a fine fuzz like other cucumbers but these seem to be more irritating to the human skin. Long sleeves and gloves are recommended for handling any part of this plant.

There is some controversy about what this plant tastes like. Some describe it as a cross between a banana and a cucumber while another description likens it to a cucumber and lime. Still others say it has a very bland flavor. I can't tell you for sure just yet since mine are still green. They turn a bright orange when they are fully ripe and ready to eat.

One of the features that may make this fruit attractive for retail sales is its long shelf life. C. metuliferus is grown as an ornamental fruit in New Zealand, Kenya, Israel and the USA and its market is expanding. If kept at room temperature it will keep for many months.

Another thing to consider is that some varieties of this fruit contain cucurbitacines. This compound makes some of the fruits extremely bitter. These compounds are very toxic to mammals. The theory is that since they are the bitterest substances known, they are also feeding deterrents and mammals in the wild very rarely eat the horned melon. Trust the human mammal to be the only one willing to try it out. The emphasis now is on breeding varieties that contain more sugar content and less cucurbitacines.

The inside of this bright orange fruit looks like lime Jell-O full of seeds. Similar to a Kiwi fruit with bigger seeds. The green part is what you eat but spit the seeds since they may be bitter. There's a whole new contest idea there. Watermelon seed spiting champions beware! Prepare yourself for some unsavory comments about its appearance if you have anyone around under 12 years old. You can use it by itself or mixed in with other fruit or incorporated into a salad.

You can find this fruit for sale in some specialty fruit markets and it's worth trying out or just to keep one around in the fruit bowl. Even if you don't eat it the fruit will come in handy to repel intruders. If your spouse or friends are prone to throwing things when angry you may wish to reconsider having this fruit around.


John Harmon owns and operates Tropicals North. Write to John c/o The Yukon News, 211 Wood St., Whitehorse, Yukon, Y1A 2E4 or e-mail tropnorth@polarcom.com


 

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