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(Cucumber, Gourd, Melon, or Pumpkin family)


This is a family of some 775 species in 120 genera found in abundance in the tropics but wanting in the colder regions. They are chiefly climbing herbs with very rapid growth, and an abundance of sap in their stems and other tissues (Mabberley 1997).

Cucumis melo L. provides melons; Cucumis sativus L. provides cucumbers; Cucurbita pepo L. provides the vegetable marrow, whilst other Cucurbita species provide pumpkins, squashes, and gourds. A number of other species are grown or harvested locally for their edible fruits.

The fruits of other species, for example, Citrullus colocynthis Kunth and Ecballium elaterium A.Rich., have drastic purgative properties that have been utilised medicinally.

Many species have been reported to produce mild to severe skin irritation following contact with their milky sap. Skin irritation has also been noted following contact with fresh plant material and dried fruit pulp. Some species have bristly hairs which cause skin irritation and others have prickles which produce an inflammatory reaction of either an irritant or possibly allergic nature.

Acanthosicyos Welw. ex Hook.f.

The genus comprises just two species:

Acanthosicyos horrida Welw. — Nara Melon, Narras, Butterpips
Acanthosicyos naudinianus C.Jeffrey — Gemsbok Cucumber, Herero Cucumber
[syns Cucumis naudinianus Sond., Citrullus naudinianus Hook.f.] 

Both occur naturally in tropical regions of southern Africa where they provide a valuable food and water resource in desert regions (Mabberley 1997).

These species have spines in place of the tendrils normally found in members of the Cucurbitaceae (Jeffrey 1962). As is suggested by the specific epithet, Acanthosicyos horrida is particularly heavily armed with straight sharp spines.

Bryonia L.

This is a genus of perhaps 12 species found in Europe, Asia, North Africa, and the Canary Islands (Mabberley 1997).

There is confusion in the early literature regarding the identity of various bryonies. Dioscorides' illustration of "Bruonia Ampelos Melaina" (translated into English: "bryony vine black") is evidently a Bryonia species on the basis of leaf shape, but lacks the characteristic tendrils (see Gunther 1959). The adjective black may well refer to the colour of the fruit, in which case the plant illustrated was probably Bryonia alba L., the white bryony. Gerarde's illustration of "Blacke Brionie" (see Gerarde 1636), which he also described as "Bryonia nigra", is obviously Dioscorea communis (L.) Caddick & Wilkin (fam. Dioscoreaceae) on the basis of leaf shape and lack of tendrils, but Gerarde refers in the text to the plant "winding it selfe with his small tendrels about trees, hedges and what else is next unto it …". This suggests that Gerarde did not distinguish clearly between red-berried, tendril-lacking Dioscorea communis (L.) Caddick & Wilkin and the red-berried, tendril-bearing Bryonia cretica L., which is also now known as the white bryony. Indeed, Gerarde went on to describe the "wilde blacke bryonie" as resembling the blacke bryonie, stating also that "clasping tendrils hath it none" and that "the berries heereof are blacke of colour when ripe". This would suggest that he was referring to Bryonia alba L., except that this plant does bear tendrils. Perhaps Gerarde's description of "wild blacke bryony" was based uncritically on Dioscorides' "Bruonia Ampelos Melaina"? And the plant with red berries and tendrils that Gerarde describes as "Bryonia alba" or "White Bryonie" is evidently Bryonia cretica subsp. dioica (Jacq.) Tutin (syn. Bryonia dioica Jacq.), yet the description of the virtues of its root we may now recognise as referring to the red-berried, tendril-lacking Dioscorea communis (L.) Caddick & Wilkin Thus: the root "scoureth the skin, and taketh away wrinckles, freckles, sunne burning, black marks, spots, and scars of the face … it taketh away blacke and blew spots which come of stripes: it is good against whitlowes …" Interestingly, Gerarde himself acknowledged that there was a degree of confusion regarding the identities of the black bryonie (which was also known as the wilde vine) and the wilde black bryonie, blaming this confusion on Pliny and also on the Arabians. Dioscorides' drawing of "Wilde blacke Bryonie", or "Bryonia nigra syluestris" would appear to be Clematis vitalba L., fam. Ranunculaceae.

This confusion is likely to have arisen for two reasons. Firstly, all four species (Bryonia alba L., Bryonia cretica L., Dioscorea communis (L.) Caddick & Wilkin, and Clematis vitalba L.) have a similar climbing habit. Secondly, the common names of the Bryonia and Dioscorea species, although presumably originally intended to refer to the colours of the fruits, have become transposed — this problem being compounded by the use of the specific epithet alba for one of the species, which refers to the colour of the flowers. Thus:

Bryonia alba L. — known as the white bryony, has white flowers and black berries
Bryonia cretica subsp. dioica (Jacq.) Tutin — known as the white bryony or red bryony, has white flowers and red berries
Dioscorea communis (L.) Caddick & Wilkin — known as the black bryony, has yellow-green flowers and red berries 

In the past, the roots of Bryonia species were used to prepare Tinctura Bryoniae, which was administered for example to relieve the pain and cough of pleurisy and, in higher doses, as an hydragogue cathartic. Early British Pharmacopoeias referred to Bryoniae Radix as the dried root of Bryonia dioica Jacq.; early US Pharmacopoeias, however, referred to Bryonia as being derived from either Bryonia alba L. or from Bryonia dioica.

Bryonia alba L.
White Bryony, Bastard Turnip, Parsnip Turnip


Bryonia cretica subsp. dioica (Jacq.) Tutin
[syn. Bryonia dioica Jacq.]
White Bryony, Red Bryony, Devil's Turnip, English Mandrake, False Mandrake

Culpeper (1653) noted that the red berries of both white and black bryony could be used to cleanse "filthy ulcers" and tetters — hence the common name tetter-berry.

King's American Dispensatory (Felter & Lloyd 1898), not distinguishing between the two species, states that the fresh root of bryonia is extremely irritating, occasioning blisters when bruised and kept in contact with the skin. More recently published works on poisonous plants in which attention is drawn to the irritant properties of the sap (for example: Cooper 1962, Francis & Southcott 1967, North 1967, Wren 1975) probably derived their information from US and/or British Dispensatories / Pharmacopoeias published at around the turn of the 19th Century.

Apparently referring to Bryonia dioica, Pereira (1842) noted that bryony root is employed as a topical application to bruised parts. Ruddock (1937) also refers to this use, stating that professional pugilists employ Bryonia dioica - which he called black bryony - in the form of a poultice that is said to remove all discolouration in from one to two days. It is possible that both Pereira (1842) and Ruddock (1937) confused Bryonia dioica with Dioscorea communis (L.) Caddick & Wilkin (fam. Dioscoreaceae) — commonly known as black bryony or blackeye root — which is more widely recognised as being able to remove the discolouration of bruises.

Bryonopsis affinis Cogn.

The sap is said to cause blindness (von Reis Altschul 1973).

Cayaponia racemosa Cogn.

The root is strongly purgative (Lewis & Elvin-Lewis 1977).

Citrullus Schrad.

Three species are found in Africa, the Mediterranean region, and tropical Asia.

Citrullus colocynthis Kunth
[syns Colocynthis vulgaris Schrad., Colocynthis officinalis Schrad.]

The juice is used to produce tissue irritation in an arrow poison. The dust from the dried fruit pulp is very irritating to the eye and nose (Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk 1962). The seed oil is used to blacken grey hair. Colocynth used as a denaturant in alcoholic hair tonics and brilliantines caused persistent eczema localised to the palm and finger web spaces of the left hand in barbers (Haxthausen 1928, 1930).

The dried pulp of the fruit is the source of colocynth, a drastic purgative (Todd 1967).

Citrullus lanatus Mansf.
[syn. Citrullus vulgaris Schrad.]
Water Melon

The juice of C. vulgaris was noted to produce a positive patch test reaction in 1 of 53 patients who had hand dermatitis suspected to have been caused by vegetables (Sinha et al. 1977).

Cucumis L.

Some 25 species are mostly found in Africa, a few in Asia.

An enema of the juice of a Cucumis species caused necrosis of the rectum and colon and death (Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk 1962).

Cucumis melo L.
Melon, Ulcardo Melon

Positive Type 1 hypersensitivity skin reactions to the juice of fresh peaches (Prunus persica (L.) Batsch, fam. Rosaceae) and melons were reported by Tuft & Blumstein (1942). Dry fruit extracts produced no reaction.

Cucumis metuliferus E.Mey.
African Horned Cucumber

The immature fruit is green, turning bright orange when ripe. It is armed with exceedingly sharp spines which readily injure the skin (Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk 1962).

Cucumis sativus L.

This species occasionally produces stomatitis (Behl et al. 1966). The juice produced a positive patch test reaction in 1 of 53 patients who had hand dermatitis suspected to have been caused by vegetables (Sinha et al. 1977).

An outbreak of "cucumber rash" in persons working in a cucumber greenhouse was found to be a ringworm infection (microsporosis) caused by Microsporum gypseum Guiart & Grigorakis (Alsop & Prior 1961).

Cucurbita L.

Some 15 species are found in America.

Cucurbita foetidissima Kunth
Calabazilla, Fetid Wild Pumpkin

A decoction of the roots will cure maggots in wounds (Train et al. 1957).

Cucurbita maxima Duchesne
Autumn Squash, Winter Squash, Pumpkin

The juice produced a positive patch test reaction in 3 of 53 patients who had hand dermatitis suspected to have been caused by vegetables (Sinha et al. 1977).

Nagata (1971) reports that the entire fruits are used in Hawai‘i in the treatment of skin rashes.

Cucurbita moschata Duchesne
Seminole Pumpkin, Canada Pumpkin, Crookneck Squash, Winter Squash

An individual who tied up the vine tips of this species to a fence developed skin irritation from the bristly hairs of the plant. Other persons have experienced a few hours of discomfort from handling the plant which is rough to the touch (Morton 1965).

Dendrosicyos socotranus Balf. f.
Cucumber Tree

The single species in this genus is found on the island of Socotra. It is the only arborescent cucurbit (Mabberley 1997). The leaves are thorny (Menninger 1967).

Wellsted (1835), describing two Socotran trees known locally as assett and camhane, noted that a milky white juice exudes from the trunks and leaves of both, and that if the juice penetrates to the eyes, the pain is almost intolerable. Wellsted did not identify the trees botanically. However, Balfour (1888), who in 1882 had identified the camhane tree as Dendrosicyos socotranus, expressed the opinion that assett trees are not cucumber trees but Adenium Roem. & Schult. species (fam. Apocynaceae) having a similar bloated and grotesque appearance to cucumber trees.

Ecballium elaterium A.Rich.
[syn. Momordica elaterium L.]
Squirting Cucumber

Plouvier et al. (1981) reported the plant as a cause of Quincke's oedema. The juice is irritant to the eye (Grant 1974).

The genus Ecballium A.Rich. is monotypic; the plant occurs naturally in the Mediterranean region. It is the source of the purgatives elaterium and elaterin, which are prepared from the fruit (Todd 1967).

Gurania Cogn.

Some 75 species are found in tropical America.

Lewis & Elvin-Lewis (1977) refer to Gurania guarensenia as a plant having stinging hairs and harbouring a butterfly larva having similar devices, but do not state the source of their information. Neither Gurania nor any other cucurbit has stinging hairs, nor do Gurania species harbour butterfly larvae (Jeffrey 1984).

Lagenaria siceraria Standley
[syns Cucurbita siceraria Molina, Lagenaria vulgaris Ser., Cucurbita lagenaria L.]
Calabash Cucumber, Bottle Gourd

The leaves are used in Hawai‘i in the treatment of skin blotches (Nagata 1971). The fruit pulp and seeds are poisonous when ingested (Lewis & Elvin-Lewis 1977).

Luffa Mill.

Six species are found in tropical regions. Luffa cylindrica M.Roem. (syn. Luffa aegyptiaca Mill.) furnishes the bath sponge known as a loofah.

Luffa acutangula Roxb.
Angled Luffa, Sing-Kwa

The juice produced a positive patch test reaction in 1 of 53 patients who had hand dermatitis suspected to have been caused by vegetables (Sinha et al. 1977).

Marah oreganus Howell
[syns Sicyos oregana Torr. & A.Gray, Echinocystis oregana Cogn.]
Wild Cucumber

A decoction of the fruit has been used by the Washington Salish Indians of the north-western coast of N. America for treating scrofula sores (Turner & Bell 1971).

Momordica charantia L.
Wild Balsam Apple, Balsam Pear, Bitter Gourd

In Dakar, a child aged 11 years developed facial dermatitis from the application of a powder of the leaves with therapeutic intent; a patch test to the powder gave a positive reaction (Strobel et al. 1978).

The seeds and wall of the fruit are poisonous when ingested (Lewis & Elvin-Lewis 1977).

Momordica dioica Roxb.
Bitter Gourd

The juice produced a positive patch test reaction in 1 of 53 patients who had hand dermatitis suspected to have been caused by vegetables (Sinha et al. 1977).

Momordica spinosa Chiov.

This species has spines in place of tendrils (Jeffrey 1962).

Myrmecosicyos messorius C.Jeffrey

The distribution of the single species in this genus is restricted to the ancient lake-beds in the Rift Valley of Kenya, in which it is confined to the bare places around the entrances to terrestrial ant nests (Jeffrey 1962).

Sechium edule Sw.
Chocho, Choko, Cohko, Chayote, Christophine

This plant is cultivated for its edible fruit which contains one enormous seed. The juice of the skin of the fruit is said to have a numbing and paralysing effect upon the hands if it comes into contact with them; possibly, it has local anaesthetic properties (Maiden 1918b, Cleland 1925, Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk 1962).

The genus Sechium P.Browne is monotypic; it is found in tropical America.

Sicyos L.

Some 15 species are found in Hawai‘i, Polynesia, Australia, and tropical America.

Sicyos angulata L.
Bur Cucumber, Star Cucumber

The sap produces a burning sensation on contact with the skin. Penetration of the skin by a prickle of the plant produces an inflammatory reaction which may be of an irritant or possibly of an allergic nature (Pammel 1911, Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk 1962). Gardner & Bennetts (1956) include this species in a list of plants known or suspected of causing urticaria or skin irritation, probably from Pammel (1911).

Thladiantha Bunge

Some 15 species native to eastern Asia and Malaysia are climbing herbs with root tubers.

Thladiantha dubia Bunge

This Chinese species caused severe contact dermatitis in a gardener (Hausen 1978f).


Hurst (1942) reported that sheep developed sore lips from eating Cucumis myriocarpus Naudin. Ingestion of the plant has also been suspected of evoking photosensitisation in sheep (Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk 1962).


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Richard J. Schmidt

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