Monday, December 7, 2015

Ecballium elaterium

I do not see this plant very often but each time I come across it, the child in me that likened it to old perfume atomizers comes back to me.

Do you see a resemblance?

When I decided to look up Ecballium elaterium and write about it, I did not know anything factual about this Mediterranean plant native to Europe, northern Africa and temperate areas of Asia. Also called the squirting cucumber or exploding cucumber, it is a perennial herb in the family Cucurbitaceae, the cucumber family. It is the only species in the genus.

The common name comes from the fact that, when ripe, the knobby fruit which is the size of a small chicken egg and covered with numerous glandular hairs arranged in rows, squirts a stream of mucilaginous liquid containing its seeds, which can be seen with the naked eye. Mucilage is a thick, gluey substance produced by nearly all plants and some microorganisms. Mucilage in plants plays a role in the storage of water and food, seed germination, and for thickening membranes.

The seeds of E. elaterium are black and ovoid. The pressure inside the fruit that houses them is so high that when the fruit is ripe the seeds are said to be ejected even with the slightest brush by a passerby. Bar is a metric unit of pressure equal to the atmospheric pressure at sea level on earth. The pressure in the E. elaterium fruit is bar 6 and this can translate to a 36 km/h force when a hole appears where the fruit is attached to the stem and the poisonous juice that stings the skin is spread out noisily. The seeds are projected 4-6 m from the plant.

All parts of the squirting cucumber are toxic, particularly the oval green fruits.

The plant, and especially its fruit contains cucurbitacins. Cucurbitacin is any of a class of biochemical compounds that some plants-notably members of the family Cucurbitaceae, which includes the common pumpkins and gourds-produce and which function as a defence against herbivores.

The cucurbitacin that is a greenish substance extracted from the juice of the fruit of E. elaterium is called elaterium or elaterin and it has numerous medicinal uses.

The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used it as a remedy for intestinal ailments. The names of many historical medical figures are associated with the plant. Hippocrates, Dioscorides, Ibn Sina, later Mattioli, Lonicerus and more found medicinal uses for the plant.

In Turkey, the fresh fruit juice of this plant is said to be used by direct application into the nostrils as an anti-inflammatory and analgesic herbal medicine for the treatment of chronic sinusitis. It must never be used without consulting a doctor for its use may easily cause damage to the mucus membranes.

In the ancient world the juice of the plant was also considered an abortifacient.

The extraction from the roots is said to possess remedial properties for the relief of rheumatoid aches and pains.

Elaterium or elaterin is also used as a purgative. It has been found to decrease the damage caused by chronic hepatitis. Plenty more medicinal uses are named for this plant.

E. elaterium flowers through the months of June to September. The plant has small light yellow flowers. The fruit is picked when it is still not fully ripe from August to October. The sap from the fruit is sold fresh. Otherwise the fruit is dried.

Drying must take place in well aerated buildings or in ovens at 45˚C. On average, 1 kg of dried fruit is obtained from about 12 kg of fresh fruit.



  1. Hi Beste - a plant I've never heard of - though I must have seen. Interesting to know that yet again those ancients were ahead of their time ... the Samplers were extraordinary people. I'm not sure this is one of those herbs I'd be happy to use - without supervision ... thanks for telling us about the Squirting Cucumber .. cheers Hilary

  2. Hello Hilary. This must be one of the rare plants that you are not familiar with. You are very knowledgeable about plants. As for myself, I know many plants by appearance only and that is why I'm loving this blogging project which is providing me the opportunity to learn more about them.
    Salut, Beste

  3. Fascinating! I wish I knew more about ancient medicinal uses for various plants.