Spiky mystery plant resembles dinosaur eggs

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When I was a kid I was very interested in dinosaurs. I had plenty of plastic dinosaur toys, too, but this was way back before "accurate" versions of dinosaurs, whether on screen or in toy form. One of my creatures was the "ankylosaurus," modeled after a squatty, toad-like animal with a weird, club-shaped tail, an animal that lived 70 million years ago, and was about the size of a VW Beetle. (Although a vegetarian, this particular dinosaur would probably not have made a very good pet unless you had a really big backyard and didn't mind your azaleas being chewed up.) Now this was an armored dinosaur, and its body was pretty much covered with thick, pointed spikes. It makes you wonder: Do they ever find spiky dinosaur eggs?

Our mystery plant looks like it could be some kind of dinosaur egg, complete with spikes. (When you think about it, though, it wouldn't make much sense for any kinds of eggs to be covered with spikes or spines. That probably wouldn't go over too well with whatever kind of animal was laying them.)

This is a fruit that has gained popularity in American markets. It is a native of tropical Africa, and is grown now commercially in California. It's a close relative of the common cucumber and thus is a member of the plant family "Cucurbitaceae," which also gives us pumpkins, watermelons, gourds and zucchini. As are just about all of the members of the cucumber family, our spiky fruit comes from an annual plant, one that grows very quickly once sprouted and makes a vigorous vine. It likes to climb with its tendrils and can cover up a trellis in no time. The flowers are either male or female (like a cucumber). The fruits develop from the ovary of the female flower, starting out green, but as they ripen, turning a wonderful shade of yellow-orange. Inside the ripe fruit there are lots and lots of seeds, all surrounded by a green pulp. This pulp is quite juicy, and after straining, and augmentation with some considerable amount of sugar, renders a fruity drink, which tastes, to some, like a mixture of banana and citrus. However, this is one of those fruits that may demand some time learning to enjoy: Some find the pulp bitter and quite disagreeable. Tasty or not, the pulp is full of vitamin C.

Seeds are available, and the plants are easy to grow. They would be great for a child's garden. Just give the vines plenty of sunlight, water and room for growing. If you don't want to eat the fruits, they make great table decorations for the holidays. Or, you could scoop out the insides and use the shells for little bowls. Fun for the whole family.

Answer: "Horned melon," "Kiwano," Cucumis metuliferus

John Nelson is the curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia SC 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call (803) 777-8196, or email nelson@sc.edu.