The squirting cucumber (Ecballium elaterium) is a wild plant belonging to the Cucurbitaceae family. In appearance, it closely resembles more well-known plants within the same botanical family, such as watermelon or cucumber. However, unlike these, the squirting cucumber is toxic. Its fruits contain potent active principles that, if handled carelessly, can cause severe intestinal problems. Another peculiarity lies in its natural reproductive technique: when fully mature, the fruits literally eject seeds into the environment along with their juice. Both the seeds and the juice are toxic to humans, hence the vulgar names of poison-spitter or seed-spitter.
In this article, we delve deeper into understanding the plant and its botanical “oddity”, and we also explore the risks associated with accidental ingestion.
Origins of the Name “Ecballium elaterium“
The squirting cucumber originates from the Mediterranean, highly prevalent in countries along the coast and known since the time of the Greeks and Romans. The name Ecballium stems from Greek, specifically from the terms έκτο = outside and βάλλω = to throw, directly referring to the plant’s ability to throw its seeds out from the fruit.
What is the Squirting Cucumber Like?
The squirting cucumber is a perennial herbaceous plant with a tuberous root. The stems lie on the ground and spread horizontally, a typical trait of cucurbits, forming intense, almost bush-like, expanses. The plants measure about 50 cm in height on average. The stems are covered with stinging, whitish hairs, rough to the touch. They are highly branched, and a single stem is usually about 1.5 m long.
The leaves, arranged alternately, have a sturdy petiole, heart-shaped leaf blade. The base is deeply incised, and the tip is acute. The margin is serrated, with a surface that is rippled and undulated, covered with rough hair. The color varies from light green to dark green.
The squirting cucumber’s flowers, yellowish-white in color, are monoecious with calyx and corolla divided into 5 lobes. Male flowers are grouped in axillary racemes, while females are solitary. Flowering occurs from May to September.
The fruits of Ecballium elaterium resemble small miniature watermelons, although they are obviously inedible. Botanically, they are pendulous oval-shaped berries, light green in color with a rough surface. Full maturation occurs towards the end of summer.
How Does the Squirting Cucumber Eject Its Seeds?
The squirting cucumber is known as the poison-spitter or seed-spitter. In practice, when the berry reaches complete maturity, it detaches from the stem, forcefully ejecting seeds along with a very bitter and toxic liquid. The seed expulsion mechanism is spectacular: the stem acts as a plug, and inside, the fruit builds up an incredible internal hydraulic pressure, causing the seeds and “spat-out” liquid to reach several meters away. A gentle touch of the mature fruit is enough to trigger this sort of explosion. Another curiosity is that once one fruit starts bursting, the others around it follow suit, triggering a chain reaction.
Where Does the Squirting Cucumber Grow?
The squirting cucumber is a wild plant that sporadically grows in almost all Italian regions, especially in coastal areas. It’s found in uncultivated lands, among rubble, and on embankments.
All parts of the plant are toxic, particularly the seeds and the liquid surrounding them inside the fruit. The toxicity is due to the presence of a glucoside alkaloid, namely elaterin, cucurbitacins, and fatty acids.
These active principles have strong purgative, diuretic, emmenagogue, cytotoxic, emetic, and rubefacient properties.
Ecballium elaterium in Folk Medicine
Dried squirting cucumber juice was used in folk medicine as a drastic purgative in severe cases of poisoning. However, empirical use often led to serious side effects.
Squirting cucumber consumption, whether accidental or intentional, can cause severe adverse effects. Even external contact leads to severe inflammation of the nasal and oral mucosa. Therefore, it should not be touched with bare hands, and most certainly, it should not be handled recklessly to squirt out the seeds.
Internally, adverse effects target the gastrointestinal system, causing symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, intense diarrhea, headaches, and abdominal pain. In individuals with pre-existing health issues and high intake, there’s also a risk of death.