The Precarious Art of Clinging

Seedlings of Echinocystis lobata

Until we moved to our home on the White River in Vermont, I had never noticed Echinocystis lobata. Now I find it difficult to believe that statement because I see wild cucumber everywhere I look.

Our first summer here, Jay and I spotted this vine gracefully clinging to branches of live trees as well as those making compost on the ground. Its leaves are maple-shaped with deep lobes. The tiny white (and wonderfully fragrant) flowers float in the air in delicate sprays. The tendrils that cling are coiled springs with a slight sticky quality to their flesh.

Once the flowering is over, the plant’s fruits appear, shaped like young lemon cucumbers covered with spikes. When ripe, the fruits burst open, and watermelon-shaped seeds slide out with a small cascade of water to the ground. As autumn continues, the fruits lose their green husks but the skeletons of their vascular system remain behind, looking for all the world like diminutive loofahs.

Jay and I have gathered and planted the seeds of this plant many times, including last fall. This spring, we have two plants started just under the windows by our dining room table. We also have a quartet by a privacy trellis in our yard.

This is the second time we’ve invited wild cucumbers to grow in our gardens. The first time, we nursed one plant across a window up the front of the house. Living in such close proximity made daily observation possible, and we acquired an admiration for this cucumber’s climbing system. Not only are its coils efficient, using every small crevice to secure the mother plant, they also act as shock absorbers, keeping the vine and flowers and fruit in place during the highest wind.

Yet another example, I think, of the importance of adaptability.

The seedlings pictured here are among the few ground covering botanicals that have braved our post-Irene flood plain. You can see the type of flotsam that covers the ground out there in the background. I’m contemplating moving them, transplanting them to the edge of the debris pile where their vining ways will have a playground on which to flourish. And they will be safely out of the way of any excavation we’ll have to do to shore up the slope where our house sits.

Adaptability and change. Though things will turn out all right, they won’t be the same.