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Information Needed About the Aardvark Cucumber (Cucumis humofructus)

Volume 2 Number 8 - July 1997

Jeremy Hollmann

The Aardvark and the cucumber 
 Headline news in the PlantZAfrica bulletin Veld and Flora

Cucumis humofructus (Stent), or the aardvark cucumber as it is known in South Africa, is a remarkable plant. Not only is it the only known member of the Cucurbitaceae that fruits underground, but it appears to have an exclusive, symbiotic relationship with the aardvark (Orysteropus afer Pallas). The aardvark locates the underground fruits and uncovers them, tearing the fruit open with its claws and extracting the juicy fruit pulp and seeds with its long, sticky tongue. After defecating, the aardvark buries its dung. This is an ideal arrangement from the plant's point of view as it ensures that its seed is "planted" in a nutritious medium. The seeds then germinate during the rainy season.

From the small number of herbarium collections known to us, it appears that the aardvark cucumber is widely distributed over the African continent. Collections have been made in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola, Zaire, Kenya and Ethiopia. We suspect, however, that the distribution of the aardvark cucumber overlaps with that of the aardvark and that the plant will be found wherever there are suitable aardvark habitats.

In South Africa, where the aardvark has been classified as a vulnerable species, aardvark cucumbers are presently regarded as rare and endangered. We have been studying the phenology of the aardvark cucumber for the past few years with a view to propagating and conserving plants in our Garden and producing seed . We are also keen to establish whether the plants exhibit regional variations (for example, plant size, fruit size) over its range of distribution. Information about localities as well as the plant's conservation status in other African countries would be welcomed. Please contact Jeremy Hollmann and Susan Myburgh if you have any information about this remarkable plant.