Wooly Bears and Hedgehog Gourds

In winter I have time to scan seed and plant catalogs for what I want to grow the following season. Sometimes I purchase seeds that I haven’t really thought through, and when they’ve arrived, I wonder “What was I thinking?”

A few years back I bought seeds of what seemed to be wild cucumber—interesting for florists, or so the seed catalogs said. My mood was different after the seeds arrived, and I wondered how those had ended up in my order. I no longer felt like growing them and I kept imagining plants that looked like the wild cucumbers which grow along a nearby river, and totally take over the whole roadside landscape. Did I really want something like that in my garden? And were they really something I would have the guts to offer to my customers?

When the growing season came I planted all the standards I wanted or had to grow. When it came to making space for new or unfamiliar plants, I would look at these packets of wild cucumber seeds, and…choose something else. A year went by with that seed still sitting in my seed box. The following year the same thing happened: I wanted to try them but they just wouldn’t fit in. I didn’t even know the genus or species for this thing! I finally decided I better just plant those seeds even if it was just so that I wouldn’t have to look at them anymore.

The seed did look very much like cucumber seed. I planted them individually in 32-plug trays, and when they sprouted (quite quickly) they looked like furry-leaved cucumber plants. I let them grow for a few weeks in the greenhouse until they filled out the plug trays and then transplanted into black plastic. I use black plastic mainly to control weeds, but it does warm the soil a little as well. As they began to grow and spread, I considered them puny in every way compared to edible cucumbers. They had smaller leaves, stems and fruits. I thought if the fruits of cucumbers would grow like these plants it would be great as the fruit never gets bigger than its mature size, which was about two and a half inches long. They were the perfect size for gherkins even a month on the vine.

As I watched them grow into a harvestable size, I began wonder what I would do with them. How should I sell them? They were certainly interesting—super furry, and striped like sea urchins. Should I pick them like cucumbers in bowls or what? I spent a lot of time wondering what I should do, because it wasn’t a fair trial if I didn’t try to sell them. Finally, I cut the entire plant right at the base and tied the whole thing into a bundle. Each plant had eight to ten vines that radiated out from the center about four to six feet, and each vine had prickles like little horns. There were lots of uniform fruit per plant. It made an unusual but useful design.

I grew this ornamental vine because it was very unusual, and while not everyone wanted to buy it, everyone noticed and commented on what they would use it for. That made it a success in my eyes. I planted only a couple flats; we grew it on the ground rather than a trellis, which allowed us to harvest the whole plant with one cut. It was priced to florists for eight dollars a bunch and we were able to sell most of what we planted. It was excellent for filling a floral arbor or for draping out of an arrangement.

I also tried two Cucumis species. Wooly bear (Cucumis dipsaceus) was my favorite. I harvested the green fruit which dried on the vine. The fruits were less fragile when freshly harvested. The weird-looking fruit almost looked like it could attach itself to clothing, much like a cocklebur. It reminded me more of a porcupine than a wooly bear.

The other was the hedgehog gourd, or African horned melon. Supposedly the green fruits with yellow strips are edible, but I think they’re grown mainly as ornamentals.

Neither the wooly bear or hedgehog gourd are weeds here, but online research tells me that they have naturalized or become weeds in Hawaii, and maybe other suitable climates as well. I’m not sure they would flourish in my area; they just don’t seem that vigorous.

Janet Foss

J. Foss Garden Flowers

Janet Foss, J. Foss Garden Flowers, is a specialty cut flower grower in Chehalis, Washington, and a long-time contributor to The Cut Flower Quarterly. Contact her at [email protected]