This week's wild edible is Indian Cucumber Root!
Many people mistakenly call Indian cucumber root wild cucumber. In reality, it's not a cucumber at all. It's technically apart of the lily family and got its name from the cucumber-like taste of is rhizomes. Indian cucumber root is listed as endangered in Illinois and Florida and is a rare find in many other states. Unless it's a life or death situation, use restraint when harvesting these plants. Leave plenty to mature and spread and if possible, help them along a bit and bury the inedible ripened berries.
What it looks like.
Indian cucumber root is a fairly distinguishable plant in its mature state. Only one look-a-like plant grows in similar environments, the starflower. As long as you know what to look for, it's a very safe wild edible for the novice.
This plant usually grows a maximum height of 1-2 foot tall. Indian cucumber root has a long and thin stem that is very delicate and easily broken. The stems have a sort of hairy or "wooly" appearance to them as well.
In it's mature state, it has 2 sets of whorled leaves. The lower set of leaves are larger than the top set and are lance or oval shaped and grow in groups of 5-11 leaves. The upper set of leaves are the same shape, just a small size and are in groups of 3.
Indian cucumber root flowers are very unique. They start off growing on the topside of the whorls, but as they mature drift down below and bloom underneath the whorls. The flowers have green or yellowish tepals that curve backwards along with 3 dark red styles and 6 stamens.
This plant actually does have fruit in the form of berries. Unfortunately the berries aren't edible, but do aid in identification. The dark red-purple berries ripen in late summer and early autumn. They can be found above the upper whorl of leaves and "stain" the base of the leave deep red or purple where it meets the stem.
The roots of this plant are somewhat unique as well. The grow close to the surface at a 90 degree angle to the plant. They grow parallel with the surface of the ground as a rhizome. The rhizome is cover in tiny "hair-like" root structures.
It should be noted that while the the starflower plant looks very similar to an Indian cucumber root without it's second tier, there are easily noticeable differences. For one, the leaves of starflower are whorled, but are different sizes. All the leaves in each whorl of Indian cucumber root are the same shape and size. Second, the leaves of starflower have more of a branching vein pattern whereas Indian cucumber root's leaves have more a parallel type of vein. And finally, if you find the plants in flower they are worlds apart. starflower has 2 white "star" shaped flowers that grow above its whorls and Indian cucumber root has very unique flowers, that when they bloom, actually hang below its whorls.
When and where to find it.
Indian cucumber root grows in open forest floors that tend to hold a lot of moisture. Look for them in fairly open areas that still have canopy protection. They don't do well in full shade or full sun either, but do prefer mostly shaded areas with high moisture content in the soil.
They are a perennial plant so if you find one it will most likely come back in the same spot the next year if left unharmed. It's also common to find them growing in groups, although its not uncommon to find a lone plant. When actively looking for them, check around water sources that have a rich soil content such as swamps, bogs, and springs.
Indian cucumber root begins to appear mid-late spring, but at this stage can be mistaken for starflower if you're not careful. If you wait until late summer and early autumn the second tier will be apparent and will be much easier to identify seeing how starflower only grows one tier of leaves.
The edible part of Indian cucumber root is the rhizome. This is the root mass that grows parallel with the ground at a 90 degree angle from the plant. They are very easy to dig up since the rhizomes grow close to the surface of the ground. The rhizome is edible raw or cooked. Use it any way you would a normal cucumber.
Indian cucumber root has a very light and refreshing cucumber taste from which the name is derived. Try not to harvest them just to harvest them seeing how they are endangered in some stated and very rare in others. It goes without saying that one you dig the rhizome up you have essentially destroyed the plant. After digging them up they won't be returning the next year.
If you do take some of them then try do the right thing and harvest them when the berries are ripe. You can't eat them, but you can plant them and assist future generations. Even if you don't harvest the plant this is still a good practice to help future Indian cucumber root populations.
Historically, Indian cucumber root is said to have a few medicinal properties. Those include (but are not limited to): treating convulsions in infants, being a diuretic and hydrogogue, and is also said to have aided in the treatment of dropsy.
**Warnings, Disclaimers, and Precautions**
Please be sure to read ALL of this section!!
**Starflower is a toxic look-a-like to a younger Indian cucumber root. Know what both plants look like before ingesting in any form.
**Always wash mushrooms and other wild edibles before cooking or eating.
**When identifying plants you are unfamiliar with, please use as multiple references, as well as help from experts when available. Unless you are 110% sure what a plant is, it is best to avoid it completely.
**If you plan on using any plants for medicinal uses, consult a healthcare professional, as well as botanist familiar in the field of wild plants. And as always, use as many references and expert opinions as possible when identifying a plant.
**Be sure to avoid any plants growing near roads, around chemicals, other poisonous plants, or polluted/contaminated water.
**As always, be sure to use the Universal Edibility Test to ensure the plant is the correct plant and to help identify any unknown allergies you may have.