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biodiversity explorer

the web of life in southern Africa

Genus: Cucumis (spaanspek, winter melon, cucumber genus)

Life > eukaryotes > Archaeoplastida > Chloroplastida > Charophyta > Streptophytina > Plantae (land plants) > Tracheophyta (vascular plants) > Euphyllophyta > Lignophyta (woody plants) > Spermatophyta (seed plants) > Angiospermae (flowering plants) > Eudicotyledons > Core Eudicots > Rosids > Eurosid I > Order: Cucurbitales > Family: Cucurbitaceae

The 32 species are mainly found in Africa but also in Asia and Australia. There are 20 species native to southern Africa and a further four species that are cultivated in the region. This genus includes muskmelons, wintermelons, spaanspek (all domesticated forms of Cucumis melo), cucumber (Cucumis sativus) and gherkins (Cucumis anguria - although almost all so-called gherkins sold in shops are in fact baby cucumbers).

Species native to southern Africa

List from Plants of Southern Africa - an Online Checklist (SANBI), Flora of Zimbabwe and Flora of Mozambique.

Cucumis africanus

Cucumis anguria (Gherkin, West Indian gherkin)  

The Gherkin originates from southwestern Africa and the wild form (bitter with spikey fruit, leaves and stems) is widely distributed in the northern parts of southern Africa. The Gherkin is thought to have been brought to the West Indies in the slave trade days (probably from Angola), where it became popular as a vegetable. The most common use of gherkins is to pickle them when young but they also boiled fresh and eaten as a vegetable.

Cucumis aspera


Cucumis bryoniifolius

[= Cucumella bryoniifolia]

Recorded from Zimbabwe.


Cucumis cinereus


Cucumis clavipetiolatus


Cucumis heptadactylus


Cucumis hirsutus

Cucumis humifructus


Cucumis kalahariensis


Cucumis maderaspatanus

[= Mukia maderaspatana]

Cucumis meeusei


Cucumis melo (Muskmelon, including wintermelon and spanspek)

The wild Muskmelon has an indigenous distribution over the desert and savanna regions of Africa, Arabia, southwestern Asia and Australia, including in southern Africa, and was domesticated in Africa and southwestern Asia more than 4000 years ago. It now comes in a range of forms including those with netted rinds (e.g. spanspek / cantaloup) and those with smooth rinds (e.g. wintermelon). Melons are usually eaten fresh as an hors d'oeuvre at the beginning of the meal or as a dessert fruit at the end of the meal.

Cucumis metuliferus (Jelly melon, African horned cucumber, Kiwano)

Native to African woodlands and grasslands, prefering those regions with a hot climate. Within southern Africa, it occurs in Namibia, Botswana, Swaziland and South Africa (Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal). It has become a weed in Queensland, Australia. The fruit is distinctive in having short horn-like processes widely spaced over its surface. It turns orange when ripe.

Cucumis myriocarpus (Prickly paddymelon)


Cucumis oreosyce


Cucumis quintanilhae


Cucumis rigidus


Cucumis sagittatus


Cucumis zeyheri

Other species, cultivated in southern Africa

List from Glen (2002). In addition to Cucumis anguria (Gerkin), Cucumis melo (muskmelons), and Cucumis myriocarpus (Prickly paddymelon) mentioned above, the following species are cultivated in southern Africa.

Cucumis dipsaceus

Native to NE Africa.


Cucumis ficifolius

Native to tropical Africa.


Cucumis prophetarum

Indigenous from tropical Africa through to Arabia.


Cucumis sativus (Cucumber)

Originates from a wild species growing in India that was domesticated more than 2000 years ago. Cucumbers today are mainly grown in hothouses. They are usually eaten sliced in salads or on sandwiches but are also blended up for cold sauces and soups. Less commonly, they are used in cooked dishes. Young cucumbers are pickled as gherkins (see true Gherkin).


  • Glen, H.F. 2002. Cultivated Plants of Southern Africa. Jacana, Johannesburg.
  • Kirkbride, J.H. 1993. Biosystematic monograph of the genus Cucumis. Parkway Publishers, Boone, North Carolina.
  • Meeuse, A.D.J. 1962. The Cucurbitaceae of southern Africa. Bothalia 8: 1-111.
  • Welman, W.G. 2003. Cucurbitaceae. In Germishuizen, G. & Meyer, N.L. (eds), Plants of southern Africa: an annotated checklist. Strelitzia 14: 413-417. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.