The Cucurbit: All About Cucumbers, Squash, Zucchini, Melons and Pumpkins

For delicious summer and winter cucurbit dishes, plant squash, pumpkins, melons and cucumbers.


| March/April 2010


SIDEBAR:
A Squash Recipe for Four Cucurbits 

They’re colorful, come in all shapes and sizes, and are easy to grow. Many are edible, some folks even delight in devouring their flowers, and plant breeders have been so tangled in the tendrils of genetic variability that they’ve created viny versions with wart-covered fruit and others with super-sweet flesh. Known collectively as cucurbits, members of the squash family continue to fascinate gardeners the world over. If a lack of space has kept you from growing pumpkins, cucumbers or gourds, now is the time to try with space-saving cucurbit bush varieties. If space isn’t an issue, why not plant that old-fashioned ‘Moon and Stars’ watermelon. Trying to attract Purple Martins to your place? Grow a crop of birdhouse gourds and build the birds a high-rise condo that’s hard to resist.

Members of the family Cucurbitaceae are native in most countries, but the earliest records of people dining on these vegetables comes from Mexico where caches of squash seeds more than 9,000 years old have been found. Egyptian tombs suggest pharaohs served melons at their meals, and today African food markets display many forms of cucurbits. Of course, squash and pumpkins have long been grown in this country by Native Americans, who passed them on to the Pilgrims. Cucurbits generally include squash, pumpkins, gourds, melons and cucumbers. The plants are typically annuals with vines, five-lobed leaves, spring-like tendrils, male and female flowers on a single plant, large and fleshy fruits with a hard skin, and many large, flat seeds. 

Squash and pumpkins

Most garden squashes belong to four species: Cucurbita pepo, C. maxima, C. moschata and C. mixta. These nutritious vegetables are high in fiber, and deeper orange flesh color usually indicates larger amounts of beta carotene, providing more vitamin A.

For nearly 40 years, my husband and I have squeezed as many squash as we can into our gardens. Almost tropical with their umbrella-like leaves and colorful fruit, the vines scramble across the soil and reach onto the lawn. The two categories of squash – summer and winter – are equally delicious. We grow both varieties, and every year new and interesting types are available to try.

Most summer squash are bush types and members of Cucurbita pepo, while the majority of winter squash belong to either C. moschata or C. maxima and have a rambling habit. Summer squashes mature quickly – as little as 50 days from seed. They come in a kaleidoscope of colors and a multitude of shapes and sizes. One of my favorites is ‘Sunburst,’ a golden pattypan with crisp flesh and mild flavor.

Jere Gettle, founder of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, Missouri, likes ‘White,’ ‘Yellow’ and ‘Bennings Green Tint’ scallops.





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