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Cucumis anguria L.

Sp. pl. 2: 1011 (1753).
Chromosome number
2n = 24
Cucumis longipes Hook.f. (1871).
Vernacular names
West Indian gherkin, bur cucumber, gooseberry gourd (En). Concombre antillais, cornichon des Antilles, ti-concombre, macissis (Fr). Pepino das Antilhas, cornichão das Antillas, machiche, maxixé (Po).
Origin and geographic distribution
Cucumis anguria is of African origin and it occurs wild in East and southern Africa. It has bitter fruits, but occasionally non-bitter types occur. Seeds were taken to the Americas with the slave trade, where the cultivated West Indian gherkin was developed. This edible, non-bitter type spread through the Caribbean, parts of Latin America and the southern United States. It can now be found in a semi-wild state as an escape from cultivation, and in some cases it appears to be an element of the indigenous flora. It is an invasive weed in parts of North America and in Australia, and a serious weed in peanut fields of the southern United States. The non-bitter edible form was reintroduced into Africa (e.g. Cape Verde, Senegal, Sierra Leone, DR Congo, Réunion, Madagascar, South Africa), where it is grown for its fruits. In Madagascar Cucumis anguria is probably not originally wild, but naturalized because it is localized around human habitations.
The leaves of bitter forms of Cucumis anguria are cooked and eaten, in the same manner as pumpkin leaves (Cucurbita spp.). In Ruwangwe, Zimbabwe, it is known as ‘mubvororo’ and used to prepare a special dish for the father of the household. In Namibia, it is one of a range of edible wild greens, which are dried into cakes and stored for use during the dry season. Elsewhere in Africa the non-bitter form is cultivated for its fruits. It is recorded near Thiès (Senegal), where the immature fruits are pickled green. In South Africa the fruits are eaten both fresh and dried.
In the New World, West Indian gherkin refers to the cultivated non-bitter form, a favourite pickle since the 17th century and sometimes eaten fresh. Fruits are also relatively common as a table vegetable and they are used in soups and stews. In Brazil, the mature fruits are cooked as the main ingredient of a traditional soup called ‘maxixada’. Immature fruit are used as fresh cucumbers.
Bitter forms of Cucumis anguria are sometimes used in Zimbabwe as a natural pesticide in stored crops. The juice of the fruit is reportedly used as an antifeedant in granaries. In Matabeleland (Zimbabwe) the fruit is used as a lure in rock and stick traps. Medicinal uses are reported from Tanzania where an enema of the wild plant is used to treat stomach pain. In Zimbabwe traditional medical practitioners consider the bitter fruit as poisonous and the juice of the fruit is used to treat septic wounds in livestock. In America, medicinal uses are varied, including root decoctions as a remedy for stomach trouble in Mexico, and to reduce oedema in Cuba. The fruit is eaten to treat jaundice in Curaçao, and leaf juice preparations are applied to freckles in Cuba. Kidney problems are treated with a decoction in Colombia, where it is believed that the fruits eaten raw dissolve kidney stones. The fruit is applied to haemorrhoids in Cuba, and the leaves after being steeped in vinegar are used against ringworm.
Production and international trade
Cucumis anguria as a leafy vegetable is collected from the wild or grown on a small scale in southern Africa, but no data on its production or trade are available. The cultivation of Cucumis anguria for non-bitter young fruits is also practised on a small scale only. In the New World, where it is always cultivated for its immature fruits, it is also of minor importance and in statistics is combined with pickling cucumber (Cucumis sativus L.).
The nutrient composition of the fresh fruit of West Indian gherkin per 100 g edible portion is: water 93 g, energy 71 kJ (17 kcal), protein 1.4 g, fat 0.1–0.5 g, total sugar 1.9–2.5 g, starch 0.3–0.4 g, Ca 25–27 mg, P 33–34 mg, Fe 0.6 mg, vitamin A 200–325 IU, thiamin 0.05–0.15 mg, riboflavin 0.40 mg, niacin 0.3–0.5 mg, ascorbic acid 48–54 mg (Whitaker & Davis, 1962). No data are reported on the composition of the leaves, but this is probably similar to other East African dark green leafy vegetables. The seed oil of fruits of the wild bitter form is composed of palmitic, stearic, oleic, linoleic and linolenic acids.
Many cucurbits have both bitter and non-bitter forms within the same species. In the bitter forms of Cucumis anguria, the bitterness increases considerably as the fruit ripens. The bitter principles, known as cucurbitacins, are tetracyclic triterpenoids. Cucurbitacins are amongst the most bitter substances known and are extremely toxic to mammals. In Cucumis anguria the main bitter principle is cucurbitacin B (C32H48O8) with a much smaller amount of cucurbitacin D (C30H46O7) and traces of cucurbitacins G and H. Toxicity studies showed the juice of the fruits to be highly toxic to rats (LD50 1.6 mg/kg). The toxicity is reported to be reduced more than 100-fold if the juice is first boiled. Studies on the larvicidal activity of aqueous, ethanolic and citric acid extracts from Cucumis anguria on Aedes aegypti, the yellow fever and dengue fever mosquito, showed that concentrations of 0.5 mg/ml after 24-hour exposure caused larval mortalities of up to 40%.
Annual monoecious herb with trailing or scandent stems, having solitary, simple, setose tendrils 3–6 cm long; stems grooved, with bristle-like hairs. Leaves alternate, simple; stipules absent; petiole (2–)6–13 cm long, hispid to setose; blade broadly ovate in outline, 3–12 cm × 2–12 cm, shallowly to deeply palmately 3–5(–7)-lobed, with punctate to hispidulous hairs on both surfaces. Flowers unisexual, regular, 5-merous; sepals narrowly triangular, 1–3 mm long; petals united at base, 4–8 mm long, yellow; male flowers in 2–10-flowered fascicles, with pedicel 0.5–3 cm long, stamens 3; female flowers solitary, with pedicel 2–10 cm long, ovary inferior, ellipsoid, 7–9 mm long, softly spiny, stigma 3-lobed. Fruit an ellipsoid to subglobose berry 3–4.5 cm × 2–3.5 cm, on a stalk 2.5–21 cm long, beset with soft, thin spines with transparent tips, green, ripening yellow, many-seeded. Seeds ellipsoid, 5–6 mm long, compressed with rounded margins, smooth.
Other botanical information
The approximately 30 Cucumis species are native to Africa, except the cucumber (Cucumis sativus L.), which probably originates from India. Wild and cultivated types of Cucumis anguria differ in bitterness of the fruits but also in the length of fruit spines (longer in wild forms). Wild types have been distinguished as var. longipes (Hook.f.) A.Meeuse or var. longaculeatus J.H.Kirkbr., cultivated ones as var. anguria. However, plants with short-spined fruits are often naturalized in tropical America and rarely in Africa.
Growth and development
In its native habitat in southern Africa Cucumis anguria germinates in a few days during the summer rains when night temperatures are above 12°C and the soil is sufficiently wet. Early growth is upright; the primary stem may reach a height of 20 cm and does not produce flowers. This is followed quickly by several trailing procumbent stems, which branch off from the base, reaching a length of 2–3 m. Male flowers appear first, followed by female ones. Plants are self-fertile and cross-pollination is by insects. Daylength plays an important role in flowering. Longer days combined with high temperatures tend to keep plants in the male-flowering phase of development, whereas lower temperatures and shorter days encourage development of female flowers. Fruits may be produced within 60 days from time of planting. They continue to be produced and to ripen over the hot season, giving up to 50 fruits per stem. Fruits remain attached to the withered annual stems long after these have died back at the end of the growing season.
Wild Cucumis anguria is a common inhabitant of semi-deciduous and deciduous woodland, tree and shrub savanna, grassland and semi-desert, up to 1500 m altitude. Wild and semi-domesticated forms can be found growing near compounds, in woodland and grassland, often on abandoned cultivated land, near cattle kraals, or occasionally as a weed in cultivation.
Plants tolerate a wide range of soil types, including Kalahari sands (regosols), red clays (fersiallitics) and black cotton soils (vertisols). In its southern African habitat rainfall occurs in summer and varies from less than 400 mm to over 1000 mm. Temperatures during the growing season range from 15–35°C. Cucumis anguria is intolerant of frosts and cold temperatures.
The culture and agronomic requirements are similar to those of the common garden cucumber. In cultivation, the plants should be trailed. The application of organic manure and NPK fertilizer is beneficial. Irrigation can be given in periods of drought. In South Africa, the first fruit of a plant is tasted and if it is bitter, the whole plant is discarded.
Propagation and planting
West Indian gherkin is propagated by seed, which requires light for germination. Seeds are sown in pockets of 3–4 at a spacing of 30 cm in the row and 100–150 cm between rows. The seed requirement is 2.5–4.5 kg/ha. In the growing season, the period from seeding to first harvest is 2–2.5 months. Plants continue to flower and set fruit for several months. For leaf production, the same cultural practices can be followed.
Diseases and pests
West Indian gherkin is quite resistant to pests and diseases. It displays varying degrees of natural resistance to pathogens and insects, such as the cucumber green mottle mosaic virus, root-knot nematodes, powdery mildew, and greenhouse whitefly. The fruits are seldom parasitized by fruit fly larvae, which attack most other cucurbit species in southern Africa.
As the fruits are preferred for pickling, they are harvested in the immature stage while still green. If grown for leaves, these can be picked many times during several months.
A single plant can produce 50 or more fruits. No statistics on fruit or leaf yield are reported. The yield potential is probably higher than for pickling cucumbers.
Handling after harvest
The fruits can be kept for a few days at room temperature, the leaves should be consumed or marketed within a day.
Genetic resources
Cucumis anguria is not in danger of extinction in its native habitat. The National Plant Germplasm System of the USA Department of Agriculture maintains numerous accessions of cultivated types of Cucumis anguria at its regional plant introduction station in Ames, Iowa. Another collection is maintained at the Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE), Turrialba, Costa Rica.
Various Western seed companies offer seed of West Indian gherkin, including ‘African Heirloom’, and ‘West Indian Burr Gherkin’.
Cucumis anguria and related species have been the focus of investigations by plant scientists to identify resistances to the many pests (viruses, bacteria, fungi, insects) attacking cucumber and melon, which might be genetically transferred. Cucumis anguria proved to be totally immune to cucumber green mottle mosaic virus (CGMV). Resistance also occurred to root-knot nematodes and powdery mildew. In a study in South Africa, where fungal diseases and fruit parasitisation by Trypetid larvae is usually severe in Cucurbitaceae, Cucumis anguria showed a high resistance to both fungi and Trypetids. Research efforts to transfer resistances into cucumber and melon have been undertaken. Repeated attempts to hybridize different Cucumis species have not been entirely successful; some species have never been successfully crossed to produce a fertile F1 generation, whereas other species have been crossed to a limited extent.
The possibility of using Cucumis anguria as a rootstock has been suggested, where scions of desirable crop species are grafted to it. In populations of some cucurbit species that normally produce bitter or toxic fruits, individuals may occasionally arise spontaneously which produce non-bitter, edible fruit. These variants are genetically stable when removed from the bitter gene pool. In Cucumis anguria a single gene distinguishes the bitter from the non-bitter type, the gene producing bitterness being dominant. Multiple factors appear to be involved in controlling bitterness, including various physiological conditions.
Cucumis anguria both as a semi-wild leafy vegetable and as the West Indian gherkin merits more attention from plant breeders and agronomists. It is an attractive alternative to the common garden cucumber for use as a pickle, with fewer pest and disease problems and a larger fruit production.
Major references
• Baird, J.R. & Thieret, J.W., 1988. The bur gherkin (Cucumis anguria var. anguria, Cucurbitaceae). Economic Botany 42: 447–451.
• Bates, D.M., Robinson, R.W. & Jeffrey, C. (Editors), 1990. Biology and utilization of the Cucurbitaceae. Cornell University Press, New York, United States. 485 pp.
• Burkill, H.M., 1985. The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. 2nd Edition. Volume 1, Families A–D. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, United Kingdom. 960 pp.
• Jeffrey, C., 1967. Cucurbitaceae. In: Milne-Redhead, E. & Polhill, R.M. (Editors). Flora of Tropical East Africa. Crown Agents for Oversea Governments and Administrations, London, United Kingdom. 157 pp.
• Jeffrey, C., 1978. Cucurbitaceae. In: Launert, E. (Editor). Flora Zambesiaca. Volume 4. Flora Zambesiaca Managing Committee, London, United Kingdom. pp. 414–499.
• Jeffrey, C., 1980. A review of the Cucurbitaceae. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 81: 233–247.
• Kirkbride Jr., J.H., 1993. Biosystematic monograph of the genus Cucumis (Cucurbitaceae): botanical identification of cucumbers and melons. Parkway Publishers, Boone, North Carolina, United States. 159 pp.
• Meeuse, A.D.J., 1958. The possible origin of Cucumis anguria L. Blumea, suppl. 4: 196–205.
• Meeuse, A.D.J., 1962. The Cucurbitaceae of southern Africa. Bothalia 8(1): 1–112.
• Schippers, R.R., 2000. African indigenous vegetables. An overview of the cultivated species. Natural Resources Institute/ACP-EU Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation, Chatham, United Kingdom. 214 pp.
Other references
• Bailey, L.H., 1958. Garden of gourds. The Gourd Society of America, Inc. Mt. Gilead, Ohio, United States. 134 pp.
• Buchanan, G.A., Hauser, E.W. & Patterson, R.M., 1981. Control of bur gherkins (Cucumis anguria) in peanuts (Arachis hypogaea) with herbicides. Peanut Science 1981(8): 66–73.
• Deakin, J.R., Bohn, G.W. & Whitaker, T.W., 1971. Interspecific hybridization in Cucumis. Economic Botany 25: 195–211.
• Fassuliotis, G. & Nelson, B.V., 1988. Interspecific hybrids of Cucumis metuliferus × C. anguria obtained through embryo culture and somatic embryogenesis. Euphytica 37: 53–60.
• Gelfand, M., Mavi, S., Drummond, R.B. & Ndemera, B., 1985. The traditional medical practitioner in Zimbabwe: his principles of practice and pharmacopoeia. Mambo Press, Gweru, Zimbabwe. 411 pp.
• Keraudren, M., 1966. Cucurbitacées (Cucurbitaceae). Flore de Madagascar et des Comores (plantes vasculaires), famille 185. Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France. 173 pp.
• Koch, P.S. & da Costa, C.P., 1991. Heranca de caracteres de plant e fruto em maxixe. Inheritance of plant and fruit characters in gherkin. Horticultura Brasileira 9(2): 73–77.
• Leger, S., 1997. The hidden gifts of nature: A description of today’s use of plants in West Bushmanland (Namibia). [Internet] DED, German Development Service, Windhoek, Namibia & Berlin, Germany. http://www.sigridleger.de/book/index.html?/book/lists/food_plants.php. Accessed April 2003.
• Mbewe, W., & Gundidza, M., 1996. Larvicidal activity of selected plant species in Aedes aegypti. [Internet] University of Zimbabwe, Pharmacy; Student Publications, Honours Project Publication, No 6. http://www.uz.ac.zw/medicine/pharmacy/pubs/1996.html. Accessed April 2003.
• Rehm, S., Enslin, P.R., Meeuse, A.D.J. & Wessels, J.H., 1957. Bitter principles of the Cucurbitaceae. VI. The isolation and characterization of six new crystalline bitter principles. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 8: 673–678.
• SEPASAL, 2003. Cucumis anguria vars. anguria and longipes. [Internet] Survey of Economic Plants for Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (SEPASAL) database. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, United Kingdom. http://www.rbgkew.org.uk/ceb/sepasal/internet/. Accessed June 2003.
• Sibanda, S. & Chitate, N., 1990. Some constituents of Cucumis anguria. Fitoterapia 16(4): 381.
• Tindall, H.D., 1983. Vegetables in the tropics. Macmillan Press, London, United Kingdom. 533 pp.
• van Wyk, B.E. & Gericke, N., 2000. People’s plants: a guide to useful plants of southern Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria, South Africa. 351 pp.
• Watt, J.M. & Breyer-Brandwijk, M.G., 1962. The medicinal and poisonous plants of southern and eastern Africa. 2nd Edition. E. and S. Livingstone, London, United Kingdom. 1457 pp.
• West, C.E., Pepping, F. & Temaliwa, C.R. (Editors), 1988. The composition of foods commonly eaten in East Africa. Wageningen Agricultural University, Netherlands. 84 pp.
• Whitaker, T.W. & Davis, G.N., 1962. Cucurbits - botany, cultivation and utilization. Leonard Hill, London, United Kingdom. 249 pp.
Sources of illustration
• Jeffrey, C., 1978. Cucurbitaceae. In: Launert, E. (Editor). Flora Zambesiaca. Volume 4. Flora Zambesiaca Managing Committee, London, United Kingdom. pp. 414–499.
• Kearns, D.M., 1998. Cucurbitaceae. In: Berry, P.E., Holst, B.K. & Yatskievych, K. (Editors). Flora of the Venezuelan Guayana. Volume 4: Caesalpiniaceae–Ericaceae. Missouri Botanical Garden Press, St. Louis, United States. pp. 431–461.
• Keraudren, M., 1966. Cucurbitacées (Cucurbitaceae). Flore de Madagascar et des Comores (plantes vasculaires), famille 185. Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France. 173 pp.
M.H. Wilkins-Ellert
4246 W. Flying Diamond, Tucson, Arizona 85742, United States

G.J.H. Grubben
Prins Hendriklaan 24, 1401 AT Bussum, Netherlands
O.A. Denton
National Horticultural Research Institute, P.M.B. 5432, Idi-Ishin, Ibadan, Nigeria
Associate Editors
C.-M. Messiaen
Bat. B 3, Résidence La Guirlande, 75, rue de Fontcarrade, 34070 Montpellier, France
R.R. Schippers
De Boeier 7, 3742 GD Baarn, Netherlands
General editors
R.H.M.J. Lemmens
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands
L.P.A. Oyen
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands
Iskak Syamsudin
PROSEA Network Office, P.O. Box 332, Bogor 16122, Indonesia
Photo Editor
E. Boer
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands

Correct citation of this article:
Wilkins-Ellert, M.H., 2004. Cucumis anguria L. In: Grubben, G.J.H. & Denton, O.A. (Editors). PROTA 2: Vegetables/Légumes. [CD-Rom]. PROTA, Wageningen, Netherlands.
Distribution Map wild and planted

1, part of flowering stem; 2, fruit of wild plant; 3, fruit of cultivated plant.
Redrawn and adapted by Iskak Syamsudin

fruiting plant habit

fruit of wild variety in cross section

young plant, wild growing, showing early upright stem

fruits of wild variety at the end of the growing season