Indian Cucumber (Medeola virginiana) is a plant that can be found anywhere along the double loop trail in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. It is in the Lily family and the swirl of leaves is recognizable as similar to the lily leaves we may have in our gardens. It is the only currently recognized plant species in the genus Medeola and it is believed that the name Medeola derives from Greek Mythology. Medea was the name of a sorceress and a reference to the plant’s medicinal uses.
I first experienced Indian Cucumber plant as a plant to eat. It has a white rhizome that has a very mild cucumber taste with a slight “crunch”. I tried one and decided that the plant was unusual and not worth sacrificing because I wanted something that tasted like a cucumber. In fact, it is quite rare and listed as endangered in both Florida and Illinois.
Indian Cucumber is an understory plant in rich woods. The leaves are whorled and lance-like, with pointed tips. Plants that are going to flower produce two tiers of leaves and the flower hangs down from beneath the upper whorl of leaves. In the spring you look for the distinctive leaves first and then peek beneath them to find the nearly hidden small flower(s). Non-blooming plants only produce a single whorl of leaves.
Easily missed early in the year, by August a transformation occurs that makes the plant more noticeable. The flower, once fertilized, rotates upward to the top of the leaves. Then it develops into a large, pea-sized berry which starts out green and then turns a beautiful bluish-purple color. I have observed a single plant bearing three berries at once. They stand out against the leaves, which are now colored for Fall, light yellow with a center of maroon.
Medicinally it was used by native Americans as a diuretic to cleanse the kidneys and reduce edema due to water retention. It was also allegedly used as a tea to control seizures and convulsions in children.
An additional use was as fish bait! According to the Peterson Guide to Eastern Medicinal Plants, the root was once chewed to soften it and then threaded onto a hook for bait. My theory is that perhaps it resembled a white worm! Bass would love it.
Indian Cucumber is extremely slow growing and practicing herbalists do not recommend harvesting it these days. The fact that we have a large, healthy population in Joyce Kilmer is very special. Knowing how to recognize it allows you to observe this special plant where you might have overlooked it earlier.