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| Debbie Miller | Trip Reports

2024 Coyotes and Coyote Melons

Coyotes and Coyote Melons

By Sue Jaussaud

We’ve all probably noticed them on our desert adventures, those ground hugging, sprawling stems with rather large leaves and green, baseball-sized “melons.” The coyote melon, or Curcurbita palmata, belongs to a plant group that includes melons, gourds, squash, pumpkin, and cucumbers. While that may sound like a tasty family to belong to, the coyote melon is anything but…its flesh is extremely bitter and, if choked down by a human, may act upon that poor soul as an emetic (which basically means “it’s all coming out, up or down, one way or another”). The seeds, however, were eaten by Native Americans, who ground them up into a flour, and used the dried gourds as rattles and drinking cups. Our own Mignon Slentz, DE trip coordinator and Rondy maven, has turned them into one-of-a-kind hanging ornaments, some of which are for sale at the Needles Regional Museum.

Stories abound as to how the coyote melon got its name. It’s frequently linked to the belief that the melon is often consumed by coyotes, as in this San Bernardino Sentinel quote I found: “Coyotes in particular will eat them…” But then I came across an opposing opinion per the Irvine Ranch Conservancy: “…animals such as the coyote do not eat the plant’s melons.” Hmmm, did anyone have some hard evidence that either statement was true? Yes, I came across a posting by Death Valley National Park on the subject of coyote melons: “The small, flat, teardrop shaped seeds are found in coyote scat throughout the park during the Fall.” That’s pretty convincing, as least as far as DVNP is concerned. How about the East Mojave? Ah, I was in luck. I found a study, published in 2018, “Coyote diet patterns in the Mojave Desert:implications for threatened desert tortoises,” by four individuals at Cal State Stanislaus. Now, these researchers are beyond thorough (and they have very strong stomachs). Over five years and during different seasons, they collected 3,246 pieces (?) of coyote scat, dried it in an oven to kill parasites, put it in nylon pouches, washed it in a washing machine, and dried it in a tumble dryer (I am not making this up. I couldn’t). This was followed by their testing and analyses, which included lots of math (not my strong suit). I quickly scanned pages of results. My interest was not in the threatened tortoises (bless ‘em), but in the non-meat items in the coyotes’ stomachs. Those results were given in percentages, and there it was:cucurbit 0.2%, not much, but there. Was this cucurbit the result of a coyote eating a coyote melon? I like to think so. Interestingly, pumpkin seed (0.1%) and melon seed (0.1%) were listed separately for some reason.

Bottom line, for me: Coyotes do eat coyote melons, occasionally. I’m no scientist, and a sketchy researcher at best, but I don’t think that’s why it’s called a coyote melon. Bob and I were told, years ago, that one of the stories about the origin of the name came from Native Americans. Their mythology includes the coyote portrayed as a “trickster ” and the coyote melon could be considered the same. The cute little melon does look good enough to eat, but its bitter flesh is a very bad surprise, a trick. There are other Native American stories as to the origin of the name, and any of them might be correct. Trickster works for me. ~ Sue

Mignons painted Coyote Melons
Coyote Melons
Coyote Melon leaves