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Gourd Family (Cucurbitaceae)

Agricultural Species Of Gourds

Various species in the gourd family are cultivated as agricultural crops. The taxonomy of some of the groups Yellow crookneck squash (Cucurbita pepo). JLM Visuals. Reproduced with permission.
of closely related species is not yet understood. For example, some of the many distinctive varieties of pumpkins and squashes are treated by some taxonomists as different species, whereas other botanists consider them to be a single, variable species complex under the scientific name, Cucurbita pepo. This taxonomic uncertainty is also true for some of the other agricultural groups of gourds such as the melons.

The most important of the edible gourds are of two broad types-the so-called "vegetable fruits" such as cucumber, pumpkin, and squash, and the sweeter melons.

The cucumber (Cucumis sativus) is an annual plant, probably originally native to southern Asia but possibly to India. This species has been cultivated in Asia for at least 4,000 years. The cucumber grows as a rough-stemmed, climbing, or trailing plant with large and yellow flowers. The fruit of the cucumber is an elongate, usually green-skinned pepo with a fairly tough, exterior rind but a very succulent interior which is about 97% moisture. Most cucumber fruits contain many white seeds, but seedless varieties have been developed by plant breeders, for example, the relatively long, "English" cucumber. Cucumbers are most productively grown in fertile, organic-rich soils, either outdoors or in greenhouses. Cucumbers come in various agricultural varieties. The fruit of the larger cucumbers is mostly used in the preparation of fresh salads or sometimes cooked. Pickles are made from smaller-fruited varieties of the cucumber or from a close relative known as the gherkin (Cucumis anguria), probably native to tropical Africa. Cucumber and gherkin pickles are usually made in a solution of vinegar often flavored with garlic and dill or in a sweeter pickling solution.

The pumpkin, squash, vegetable marrow, or ornamental gourd (Cucurbita pepo) is an annual, climbing, or trailing species with prickly stems, large, deeply cut leaves, yellow flowers, and large fruits. This species was originally native to a broad range from Mexico to Peru. There are many cultivated varieties of this species, the fruits of which are of various shapes and sizes and with rinds of various colors. Some recently developed varieties of pumpkins and squashes can grow gigantic fruits, each weighing as much as 882 lb (400 kg) or more. The pepos of pumpkins and squashes have a relatively thick rind, and a moist, fibrous interior. These plants can be baked or steamed as a vegetable and are often served stuffed with other foods. The seeds can be extracted, roasted, and salted, and served as a snack, or they can be pressed to extract an edible oil. Some varieties of gourds have been bred specifically for their beautiful fruits, which may be displayed either fresh or dried in ornamental baskets and in decorative centerpieces for dining-room or kitchen tables.

The melon, muskmelon, winter melon, cantaloupe, or honey dew (Cucumis melo) is a climbing or spreading annual plant with many cultivated varieties. The species was probably originally native to southern Africa, or possibly to southeastern Asia. The large, roughly spherical fruits of this species have a yellow or orange sweet interior which can be eaten fresh. This species occurs in many varieties which are often grown in greenhouses or outside in warmer climates.

The watermelon (Citrullus lanatus) is a large, annual species, probably native to tropical Africa where it has long been an important food for both people and wild animals. The watermelon has been cultivated in southern Europe for at least 2,000 years and is now grown worldwide wherever the climate is suitable. The fruits of the watermelon are large, reaching 55 lb (25 kg) in some cases. The watermelon has a thick, green rind, and the interior flesh is red or yellow and very sweet and juicy. A variety called the citron or preserving melon is used to make jams and preserves.

Some other cultivated species in the gourd family are minor agricultural crops. The chayote (Sechium edule), a perennial species of tropical Central America, produces a pepo that is cooked as a vegetable. The underground tuber of the chayote can also be eaten as can be the young leaves and shoots. The bitter apple or colocynth (Citrullus colocynthis) also produces a pepo that is eaten as a cooked vegetable.

The fruits of the loofah, luffa, vegetable sponge, or dish-rag gourd (Luffa cylindrica) have many uses. To expose the stiff, fibrous interior of the pepos of this plant, the ripe fruits are immersed in water for 5-10 days after which the skin and pulp are easily washed away. The skeletonized interior of the fruit is then dried and is commonly used as a mildly abrasive material, sometimes known as a loofah sponge. This has commonly been used for scouring dishes or for bathing. Loofah material has also been used for many other purposes, including as insulation, as a packing material, and to manufacture filters.

The fruits of the white-flowered gourd or bottle-gourd (Lagenaria siceraria) have long been used by ancient as well as modern peoples of both the tropical and subtropical Americas and Eurasia, as far as the Polynesian Islands. The dried, hollowed fruits of this plant are used as jugs, pots, baskets, and utensils, especially as dipping spoons. In addition, varieties with long necks have been used as floats for fishing nets. Rattles are also made of these dried squashes.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Glucagon to HabitatGourd Family (Cucurbitaceae) - Biology Of Gourds, Agricultural Species Of Gourds, More On The Cucurbita Squashes Of The Americas