Wild cucumber is noticeable in winter and early spring for its green, vigorous vines with small white fuzzy flowers, and later by its large spiny seed pods. Its leaves are about 4 inches in diameter, and palmatedly lobed. The showy white male flowers are less than an inch in diameter and appear in groups of up to 20. Female flowers appear on the same plant and turn into the spiny seedpod after fertilization. Large dark seeds are within the pod. The flowers are present from January through June.
The plant browns and dies back in summer, but the root is quite hardy and sprouts anew in winter, and the cycle continues. The tuber is quite noteworthy as it is very large - as big as a person, one might say, and one often does, as one of its common names is Man-root. Having such a large root means that it bounces back quickly after a fire.
Don't let its name fool you - there is nothing edible about this plant, it is poisonous. Nonetheless, the root is purported to be bitter tasting, and this gave the plant the genus name Marah, which is a biblical reference of a place with bitter waters. Macrocarpus refers to the large fruit.
Native peoples are thought to have polished and used the seeds for jewelry or as marbles. The root may have had medicinal uses as a topical treatment for things like rheumatism.
Contributed by Liz Baumann