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Small fruits consumed like cucumbers (the Gherkins and Pseudo-gherkins)

What small fruit is consumed like a cucumber?

In addition to Cucumis melo and Cucumis sativus, there are several other fruiting plants that are consumed as cucumbers. These include the Cucumis anguria and the Melothria genus. Though both of these are in the family Cucurbitacea, both possess attributes that are markedly different from C. melo or sativus. The fruits of both C. anguria and Melothria are much smaller, they grow on thin vines that are very disease resistant and the vines continue to expand until the first frost.

The ‘Jamacian Burr Gherkin’ Cucumis anguria cultivar

What is a Burr Gherkin?

The Cucumis anguria is often referred to as ‘Maroon Cucumber’, ‘West Indian Gherkin’, ‘Burr Gherkin’ or just ‘Gherkin’. While the word gherkin does orginate from the Dutch word ‘gurken’ – meaning a small pickled cucumber – these small cucumber-like fruit are not baby pickles, but rather a species of plant that carries the botanicall nickname “gherkin”. While botanical gherkins usually produce small fruit that are suitable to be processed into pickled gherkins, I have found no specific information concerning the origin of the botanical nickname. Native to Africa, these juicy and generally spiny fruits made there way to central and south America with the slave trade. Once established, the vines are prolific, producing fruit which taste very similar to a cucumber – albeit without the bitterness. With fig leaf-shaped vines that are hardy until the first frost and fruit that will last for a while longer, the Cucumis anguria can easily establish itself as a weed in tropical and subtropical climates.

The hardly spiny Ethiopian cultivar of the botanical gherkin or Cucumis anguria

What are the distinguishing characteristics of the Melothria genus?

Another cucumber-like fruit that are native to the southern United States and Mexico are those in the Melothria genus. The Melothria scabra from Mexico and the Melothria pendula from the southern United States look very similar to little watermelons. They may be little melon-like fruit eaten like cucumbers, but they are neither a melon or a cucumber. Nor are they botanical gherkins, though they are similar in size and growth pattern to the C. anguira. In this way, they may be referred to as “pseudo-gherkins”. The small cucumber leaf-shaped vines start as very small plants, but will grow – over time – to take over very large areas. The stem of the Melothria genus easily reroots when placed on moist soil and the roots can establish tubers which, in tropical and subtropical frost-free climates will become perennial. These tubers resprout earlier in the season and grow much faster than vines started by seed. Attributes such as covering large areas of land, producing large quantities of fruit, rerooting and setting tubers can be a double-edged sword. While vigorous fruiting plants are ideal for gardeners wanting a bountiful harvest, these same characteristics can lead to the vines establishing themselves as a pernicious weed.

Fruit of the Melothria scabra, or ‘Sanditas’ on the vine

What is a Sandita?

The Melothria scabra is the most familiar Melothria species. In Spanish it is called the ‘Sandita’ or ‘little watermelon’. Other names for the fruit include ‘Mexican Sour Gherkin’ ‘Cucamelon’ or ‘Mouse Melon’. Once rare, they have become quite common among gardeners and gardening catalogues. The oval Sandita fruit tends to be best when ¾” to 1” in length and still shiny but become less desirable as the fruit surface becomes dull and wrinkled. While many love the ease of growing these mini melons, there is a large range of opinions about their palatability, flavor and texture – from delicious bitter-free lemony cute crunchy snacks to snot-textured cucumber-rind flavored little fruit. When compared with the mass-produced cheap grocery store cucumber, Sanditas likely seem quite delicious. But just because a food is bitter-free (liver, for example) doesn’t mean that people will want to consume it. That being said, because of its ease to grow and its appeal to those wanting to grow “baby watermelons” the Sandita is likely to remain a mainstay among gardeners.

Some Sanditas (Melothria scabra) in a bowl

What is a Creeping Cucumber?

A close relative – also coming from North America – is the Melothria scabra, or ‘Creeping Cucumber’. So similar are the two species in characteristics that it is possible that in some of their overlapping range, the two will cross. Other than the fruit of the Creeping Cucumber being slightly smaller than the Sandita, the young Creeping Cucumber looks and tastes just like the Sandita. But as the M. pendula fruit matures from light to dark green, it also transitions from being a fun snack to also becoming a strong purgative/laxative. Another thing that sets this species apart is that, true to its name, the ‘Creeping Cucumber’ tends to sprawl along the ground – establishing roots at each stem internode that touches bare soil.

The Melothria pendula or ‘Creeping Cucumber’

Overall, African gherkins and American ‘pseudo-gherkins’ can be fun additions to most gardens. Their ease to grow in a variety of climates makes them suitable for new gardeners and their prolific nature and small size makes them suitable for young gardeners. Even for experienced seed-savers, they can be a very helpful addition to the garden. Along with their disease-resistance and season-extending attributes, the fact that these small-fruited vines cross with neither C. sativus, C. melo makes them an ideal for growing alongside any other vine that is grown as a cucumber.

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