Creeping cucumber looks like a vine with small watermelon looking fruit, this small but mighty cucurbit is a unique food requiring minimal care to grow.
One day, I happened upon a sweeping vine with small watermelon looking fruit covering some bamboo in my Texas backyard. The vine certainly wasn’t planted intentionally, and although the strain on the bamboo canes wasn’t a problem (they’d been a thorn in my side for quite some time), some confusion and curiosity ensued as I attempted to identify this interesting plant. How did the vine make it to my backyard? Potential hypotheses about its origins involved it escaping from a neighboring yard, and the possibility that seeds left in the ground were suddenly activated by the freeze and nitrogen-rich precipitation from the winter storm we experienced in February 2021. Whatever the case, I eventually confirmed that the mysterious vine was creeping cucumber.
A Prolific Perennial
Creeping cucumber (Melothria pendula) is a perennial herbaceous cucurbit vine native to the southeastern United States, the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and north and central South America. It’s also made its way to East Asia, where the climate is ripe for its expansion.
Although creeping cucumber is largely recognized as a weed, it produces an edible fruit when unripe, and the plant as a whole has a long history of use in folk medicine. While limited scientific research has been done to confirm its medicinal properties, a few of its historic medicinal uses include to treat diabetes, as an anti-inflammatory, and to treat anemia. An infusion made from the tendrils of the plant is said to soothe upset stomachs, and the fruit can be boiled into a tea that’s given to mediate the effects of heart disease. When the fruit becomes ripe, it’s a powerful purgative that’s been used to treat obstructed digestive systems. Other records indicate that the plant has been used to treat snake bites, wounds, and burns.
Within its native range, creeping cucumber can be found growing wild along riverbanks, streams, and in lush forests. Farmers and gardeners also occasionally broadcast the seeds in cultivated fields and along forested edges of riparian and semi-riparian habitats to increase the plant’s overall availability.
It’s easy to look at this curious plant and see how it’s related to other cucurbits. The palmate leaves carry the familiar lobed characteristics, with 3 to 5 lobes each, and they emerge from climbing vines that produce long tendrils that curl around whatever they touch. The plant appears in late spring and matures in early summer. Then, tiny yellow flowers bloom, with both male and female flowers on the same vine. Structurally, the flowers share a downturned cup shape, but differ slightly in that the male flower emerges from a pedicel rather than what will become a grape-sized cucumber.
Creeping cucumber look like small watermelon looking fruit and contain flesh almost identical to that of domestic cucumbers. You can only eat the fruits when they’re green and unripe; once they ripen and the skin turns dark-purple, they become a powerful purgative. Unripe, they lack the laxative effect and taste almost exactly like a garden cucumber, with a slightly tangy bitterness. They can be eaten fresh, and they also taste delicious when pickled. (In addition to human consumption, there are also reports of creeping cucumber foliage being used as livestock fodder.)
Once ripe, the fruit falls to the earth and decays, allowing the plant to emerge yet again the following spring in typical perennial fashion. As long as conditions remain favorable, the vine will continue to spread, climb, and produce year after year.
Cultivating Creeping Cucumber
The herbaceous vine is hardy in Zones 8b to 11 and does well in tropical and subtropical climates. It prefers full sun, though partial shade won’t hamper production. The plant grows happily in the ground, and it can spread quickly if not managed. To help contain the vine, you can plant it in a large 5-gallon container with an attached trellis.
Choose a site with well-draining soil, which will increase the plant’s ability to move moisture through its root system, strengthening nutrient transfer. Most soil types within its native range support creeping cucumber, and the plant is tolerant of a variety of pH levels. Add small amendments of compost or manure at planting to provide nutrients to the plant throughout the season. In compacted soil, you can provided drainage in the form of perlite, pumice rock, or small amounts of agricultural sand.
You won’t need fertilizer to grow this abundant vine, but trellises or fences are a must. Prepare for at least 15 feet of twisting tendrils, and possibly more in ideal growing conditions. If you’re growing more than one plant, space them 18 to 24 inches apart.
Creeping cucumber naturally propagates via seed, either facilitated by animals or through self-seeding. Birds will happily eat the fruit, and they may be the primary carrier of this plant to East Asia – one reason growers should be vigilant around harvest time. Each fruit contains multiple seeds, and, like other cucurbit plants, the seeds are highly viable. Fruit production will continue as long as the environment stays humid and temperatures remain above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. In cooler areas, the plant will die back in winter.
To grow the plant on your own terms, extract the seeds from the fully ripened fruit and save them for next spring. Starting them in pots or flats will reveal just how prolific the plant is, with sprouts appearing in just a couple of weeks. You can transplant them a few weeks later. One common propagation method involves broadcasting the seeds near streams or on the edges of gardens. If you plant along the edge of your garden, you can easily access the vine for pruning, and the fruits will provide an easy snack while you work.
One exciting benefit to growing this interesting vine is that it supports native pollinators, including sweat bees and carpenter bees – the unsung heroes of the pollination world. The fruits of creeping cucumber form within a few months of successful pollination by insects and bees, and growing the vine in its native range alongside common garden veggies supports fruit production through increased pollination. Growers can assist creeping cucumbers by planting pollinator plants native to their area.
Perhaps the best part of growing creeping cucumbers is the act of heading into the winding patch in the heat of the summer and consuming the fresh fruit. “Refreshing” doesn’t even come close to describing the feeling elicited by this activity. The harvest process is simple. Hand-pick the fruits when they’re green and roughly the size of grapes. Those left on the vine will fall off and resprout, so clean them up if you don’t want future sprouts in that spot.
Snacking on these tangy treats is pleasant and nutritious. Like domestic cucumbers, they contain water, minerals, vitamins, fiber, and healthy carbohydrates. They also have a relatively high protein content – much higher than cultivated English cucumbers, for example.
While these tiny cucumbers can be stored in the refrigerator, they don’t maintain their structural integrity for long. Fresh, they’ll last for a week or so. For longer preservation, keep them in an airtight container with a salty brine and grape leaves, where they’ll stay good for a few months.
Sarah Jay is a landscaper, gardener, and writer based in Denton, Texas, where she incorporates native plants into her home landscape. She has a vested interest in herbalism, conservationism, plant healing, and wildcrafting.