blow-up cucumbers

After last week’s essay on chicory I thought something shorter and punchier would be appropriate, so here’s an exploding vegetable. The botanists call it Cyclanthera explodens, which certainly gets the idea across clearly. It comes originally from the Andean regions of South America, where it and two other more stable Cyclanthera species go by various names, amongst them achocha, caigua (pronounced ‘kai-wa’) and pepino de rellenar (‘stuffing cucumber’). It has subsequently found favour in Nepal, Bhutan, NE India and the Philippines.

The plant is a scrambling annual climber in the cucumber family and seems to do just fine in the UK. I sow the seeds into pots indoors in late April or early May and plant out at the start of June, just as I do with cucumbers, squash and courgettes. By late summer the plant has grown about 3m and completely covered the pergola. It clings on with tightly twining tendrils. Tender young stems and leaves can be steamed as greens. The fruit ripen in autumn. In the case of this species, you know it’s fully ripe when touching it even lightly causes it to burst open and catapult its seeds out. Unless you are a glasses wearer, I advise some form of eye protection, quite seriously. The force is surprising. The second picture here shows the fruit splayed out following detonation.

blow-up cucumbersWhether eaten raw in salads or lightly fried, the flavour is mild and pleasant, somewhere between cucumber and green pepper. The spines are soft and no problem to eat. It’s not an astonishingly toothsome vegetable but I am fond of it nonetheless: the deeply lobed leaves and vigorous growth habit give good ornamental value.

The exploding variety I grew for the first time this year, having obtained seed from the Real Seed Catalogue (well worth a look for unusual food crops) in spring but I have been growing C. pedata for a decade now. The fruit of this one doesn’t self-destruct and it is both spineless and a bit larger (up to 7 or 8 cm long), which is just big enough to stuff, and makes it more versatile in the kitchen. I originally got that seed from The Heritage Seed Library, a seed bank for organic heirloom and heritage seeds and also deserving of investigation.

blow-up cucumbers

Ballistic seed dispersal is actually quite common. As these kinds of seedpods or fruits slowly dry out, areas of tension are created in their walls, a bit like gradually coiling a spring, with inevitably explosive results.

For everyday cucumber recipes have a look right here on JamieOliver.com.

Pete Wrapson

About the author

Pete has looked after Jamie’s garden in Essex for the last six years, growing organic fruit and vegetables for both the Oliver family and Fifteen Restaurant. A traineeship at Cambridge University Botanic Garden was followed by a stint in the organic kitchen garden at Audley End House before he landed the post at Jamie’s.

Pete Wrapson's blog

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