Apparently, I watch the ground when I walk. So, I can walk right past them in summer. In autumn, however, the sheer size of their leaves on the ground beneath my feet always makes me pause, then look up. Cucumbertree. Magnolia acuminata.
I’ve also seen it written as two words – Cucumber Tree, or hyphenated – Cucumber-tree. Cucumbertree is in the magnolia family – Magnoliaceae. Other common names include cucumber magnolia, yellow cucumbertree, yellow-flower magnolia, and mountain magnolia. I associate magnolias with the south, and indeed, most specimens will be found south of me. I live at the northern part of this tree’s range. There are eight species of magnolia native to the US and this one is the hardiest. It is the only native magnolia found in Canada – and there only in southern Ontario.
I can’t for the life of me figure out why the tree got a name with “cucumber” in it. I guess somebody thought that the fresh fruits looked like little gherkins. I don’t think they look anything like a cucumber. (This is not my photo. Click on it for the orginal website.) I wish I had taken a closeup picture of the fresh fruits back in early September when I found them. And I wish you could smell their wonderful fresh, spicy aroma! And I wish you could see the bright, shiny, orange seeds.
While some birds and mammals eat the fruits and/or seeds of the cucumbertree, it is not considered an important wildlife food source. (Who decides these things? If somebody eats them, doesn’t that make them important?) I took this picture of an older fruit yesterday:
There are a few of these magnificent trees scattered on the property at Audubon where I work. The forestry website (listed below) describes where this tree can be found: “In the Allegheny Plateau of northern Pennsylvania and southern New York, cucumbertree usually is associated with black cherry (Prunus serotina), sugar maple, yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis), sweet birch (B. lenta), yellow-poplar, hemlock (Tsuga spp.), basswood (Tilia spp.), northern red oak Quercus rubra), and butternut (Juglans cinerea). Understory vegetation includes black cherry, white ash (Fraxinus americana), sugar maple, beech (Fagus grandifolia), red maple (Acer rubrum), striped maple (A. pensylvanicum), witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), hobblebush (Viburnum alnifolium), and other viburnums.” Sure enough, many of the trees listed here are in the forest sections where I find the Cucumbertree at Audubon.
They seem like aliens with enormous leaves and unusual fruits. They are inconspicous in the summer, if like me you watch your feet while you walk. But watch in late August or September for strange pink fruits on the forest floor… or later when the gigantic leaves fall and the fruits dry and explode. Pick up a fruit – fresh or dried, and sniff it. Look around for the tree. Explore its bark. It’s a great tree! I love it!
Need to know more? Check out these websites: