The Cucurbita foetidissima plant’s Latin name translates roughly to “stinking gourd,” and for those who have been up-close to this foul-smelling vine, using that translation as the common name makes perfect sense. The plant is found throughout the Southwest, where locals call it a variety of common names, but to nature lovers in Orange County the plant is most often called stinking gourd or coyote melon. As with many common names, both of these monikers have their own unique story.
Stinking gourd is a sprawling, low-growing vine that can spread up to 20 feet across. It produces very large roots, which after a few years can reach weights of over 220 pounds. Among the gray-green leaves, large, bell-like yellow flowers bloom and average 3 to 4 inches long and 1 to 2 inches wide. The softball-sized melon produced by the plant starts dark green with lighter green stripes, then turns yellow when ripe.
Although the flowers are said to have a sweet, pleasant smell, the leaves are what gives the “stink” to this gourd. The leaves have a strong, unusually repulsive smell, often described as similar to that of human body odor. Some plants are smellier than others, and occasionally some lack the odor altogether, but when a hiker smells something foul along the trail, they’ll probably see the spreading vines of the coyote melon on the ground.
In addition to being a tasty bite for coyotes, there are a few theories on how the plant acquired the common name of “coyote melon.” One story is that coyotes wanted to keep the sweet fruit for themselves, so they would urinate on the plants to keep other animals away. Another story is that the leaves of the plant look like coyote ears, and the yellow ripened gourds look like coyote’s glowing eyes. Some say that since the flesh of the melon is sweet and the center toxic, that the fruit is tricky, like a coyote.
“Native Americans had many uses for the coyote melon,” said Irvine Ranch Conservancy Interpretive Specialist Kelley Reetz. “They would grind the seeds from the gourd to make a type of porridge, and use the gourds and roots as soap. The melons could also be dried with the seeds intact and used as a rattle, or hollowed out to become a container or drinking cup.”
As the coyote melon ripens in the fall, it serves as a major food source for local wildlife. Smaller animals also make a meal of the roots and vines. You can see this interesting plant along most trails throughout the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks, so visit www.LetsGoOutside.org/Activities to find a hike or ride in search of the coyote melon.