Toxic Squash Syndrome

Plants are more intelligent than we give them credit for. Because they don't like to be eaten, they learned to defend themselves. Plants produce chemicals to deter herbivores (or humans eating plants).
Of of these chemicals is cucurbitacin. Officially it is any chemical of a class of biochemical compounds that some plants — notably members of the family Cucurbitaceae, which includes the common pumpkins, cucumbers, zucchinis , melons, and gourds – produce. Cucurbitacins impart an extremely bitter taste.

But Mother Nature is intelligent and these chemicals are not only produced in pumpkins and gourds. They and their derivatives have been found in many plant families [including the cabbages (Brassicaceae), begonias (Begoniaceae), primulas (Primulaceae) and more], in some mushrooms (including Russula and Hebeloma) and even in some marine mollusks.

So, you might ask, I have eaten cucumbers or pumpkins for years and I've never had the displeasure of encountering a bitter taste in one of these fruits. You are quite right, because thousands of years of selective breeding has al but weeded out these bitter tasting chemicals. But the genes are still there. These genes are 'sleeping' or 'turned off'.

But sometimes these genes will become active again. They will be 'turned on'. Scientists have researched why these genes start producing cucurbitacins again and they think [1] cross-pollination with wild Cucurbitaceae species or [2] from plant growth stress due to high temperature and drought.

And suddenly and quite unexpectedly, your beloved cucumber or pumpkin will be extremely bitter and even toxic (again).

Symptoms include nausea, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, vomiting, dizziness, and (in rare instances) hair loss. In most cases, the poisoning will run its unpleasant course much like other instances of food poisoning. However, in 2015 a 79-year old German man died and his wife was hospitalized after eating a significant amount of toxic zucchini in a stew. Seek medical attention if you become dehydrated, have excessive pain or dizziness, experience ongoing stomach issues or believe you have consumed more than a bite or two of food containing high amounts of cucurbitacin.

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