Most plants are worth growing because they are so beautiful or useful in the garden. Others are edible. But a select few are worth the effort because they are just weird or exciting. Of course different people are excited by different things. A stamp with a missing perforation will make some people sweat with passion and good luck to them. It would not get my pulse racing. So I understand that a vigorous creeping vine with small yellow flowers and fuzzy green fruits might not be to everyone’s taste. But, to me, Ecballium elaterium is a botanical wonder and worth every inch of space it invades – and there can be quite a few of them.
Ecballium is a Mediterranean native and a monotypic genus – there is just the one species in the genus. It grows wild in scrubby and rocky, dry places where it scrambles across the ground, sometimes elevating itself if it finds a bush to grow through though more typically just spreading sideways. It is a perennial with a thick, almost tuberous root. It dies back to a rather unpleasant looking stump with the winter cold but resprouts in spring. The bristly stems produce bristly leaves that are moderately attractive and pleasant enough sprawling over rocks or a sunny bank and the plant then produces clusters of male flowers and individual female flowers on the same plant. Then the excitement begins. The female flowers produce bristly fruits, about 8cm long, that hang from upright stems amid the leaves and these are green at first. As they ripen they change colour slightly to become more yellow. At this stage they are ready to disperse their seeds and they do this as they drop from the stems and squirt the seeds along with a think green mucilage, up to 5m away. They do this with huge force. If left alone this will happen without your help but it is impossible not to rummage about and gently lift the fruits to see if they are ready. And it is impossible not to get startled by the squirting, even though you have done it a hundred times. It is also impossible to get a photo of this – well I have not managed so far!
In some countries (including Australia) this is an unwelcome weed but it is unlikely to be invasive in northern Europe. It has self-seeded here a little but the seedlings are very easy to remove. As a word of warning, all parts of the plant have had medicinal uses in the past so do not eat the plant. I have never had any ill effects from handling the plant or having seeds squirted in my face. If you want to grow this, seeds sown in spring are easy and in the UK reputable seed suppliers such as Plantworld seeds and Chiltern seeds sell it – you don’t have to go to dodgy ebay sellers.
9/10 – it is completely bonkers!
This is not the same as the exploding cucumber (cyclanthera) which I have written about before – here