The cucumber tree is properly called Magnolia acuminata. It is in one of the oldest plant families on the planet, having lived through ice age and continental drift. Fossilized remains of M. acuminata have been found dating to 20 million years ago, and the magnolia genus has been here more than 100 million years. The flowers are where these plants show their age. The magnolias stopped developing millions of years ago and have very simple flowers that attract beetles for pollination. The fused petals and sepals, coupled with the prehistoric cone in the middle, are definitely prehistoric looking.
There are 200 species in the family, and all of them tend to look tropical and out of place in their native ranges here in the United States. The cucumber tree is native primarily to Appalachia, though a few pockets exist outside the area. In Canada, this magnolia species is listed as endangered because of loss of habitat. In fact, a lot of other members of the magnolia family are disappearing from their wild habitats for the same reason.
The cucumber tree does not have the typical big, bold or aromatic flowers. The flowers are small and camouflaged high up in the tree. You might not notice the flowers, but you would be hard pressed to miss the unripe fruit. Of course, they look like cucumbers. Like the other magnolias, when the fruit matures it splits open to reveal small, red, fleshy seeds.
M. acuminata has medicinal and food purposes just like the rest of the magnolias. The blossoms can be pickled, and the leaves serve to flavor food and teas. The bark is used for asthma, stress and inflammatory disorders, as well as sleep and digestive support. Traditionally, the bark of this tree was used for fever. Also, it was a good replacement for quinine in some areas. There is good evidence to suggest that the magnolias are interchangeable when we are speaking about their phytochemicals. In China there is written history starting in 100 A.D. using magnolia for health and healing, so the cucumber tree could have exciting possibilities in your garden.
If you’d like to plant a cucumber tree, first find a large area away from power lines. This tree can reliably grow 49 to 66 feet tall. The trees can be started from cuttings or even from seeds, but you’ll wait much longer for the fruit if you go the seed route. The hole you dig to plant your tree needs to be wider rather than deep. The trees have a branching roots system that travels along the soil surface, making them difficult to transplant if you are looking to move any good-size tree.
Magnolias like a soil that is slightly acidic, and they prefer a space that is well drained. In the case of the cucumber tree, it likes to live farther back in the woods and likes part sun rather than full sun. Water your tree well until it gets established, and then it is relatively maintenance free. Cucumber trees attract a wide variety of wildlife while making excellent shade trees. They serve as a reminder that just when I think I’ve learned all the trees around me, there is always something shocking waiting to be discovered