Pumpkins are practically synonymous with fall. Outside of every supermarket, bins overflow with pumpkins and other winter squash; inside, shelves are stocked with pumpkin flavored, pumpkin spiced, and pumpkin shaped everything. It’s the season of the almighty gourd – a family of plants that not only shares a long history with humans but also features some of the most diverse and unique-looking fruits on the planet. They are a symbol of the harvest season, a staple of the Halloween holiday, and a family of plants that is certainly worth celebrating.
The gourd family – Cucurbitaceae – includes at least 125 genera and around 975 species. It is a plant family confined mainly to tropical/subtropical regions, with a few species occurring in mild temperate areas. Most species are vining annuals. A few are shrubs or woody lianas. One species, Dendrosicyos socotranus, is a small tree commonly known as cucumber tree. Plants in this family have leaves that are alternately arranged and often palmately lobed. Climbing species are equipped with tendrils. Flowers are unisexual and are typically yellow, orange, or white and funnel shaped. They are generally composed of 5 petals that are fused together. Male flowers have 5 (sometimes 3) stamens; female flowers have 3 (sometimes 4) fused carpels. Depending on the species, male and female flowers can be found on the same plant (monoecious) or on different plants (dioecious). Pollination is most often carried out by bees or beetles.
Vining habits and diverse shapes and sizes of leaves and flowers make plants in this family interesting; however, it is the fruits born by this group of plants that truly make it stand out. Known botanically as pepos – berries with hard or thick rinds – their variability is impressive. Imagine just about any color, shape, size, or texture, and there is probably a cucurbit fruit that fits that description. Even the flesh of these fruits can be incredibly diverse. Some fruits are small and perfectly round; others are long, twisting, and snake-like or have curving neck-like structures. Some are striped, variegated, or mottled; others are warty, ribbed, or spiky. What’s more, the cultivated pumpkin holds the record for the biggest fruit in the world.
Having such unique fruits is probably what drew early humans to these plants. Bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceraria) were one of the first species of any plant family to be domesticated (more than 10,000 years ago). This occurred in several regions across the Old World and the New World even before agriculture was developed (more about that here). Today, numerous species in this family are cultivated either for their edible fruits and seeds or for seed oil and fiber production. Others are grown as ornamentals.
The genus Cucurbita is probably the most cultivated of any of the genera in the family Cucurbitaceae. Summer squash, winter squash, pumpkins – all are members of various species in this genus. Cucumbers and melons are members of the genus Cucumis. Watermelon is Citrullus lanatus. Gourds are members of Cucurbita and Lagenaria. Luffa aegyptiaca and Luffa acutangula are grown as vegetable crops (the young fruit) and for making scrubbing sponges (the mature fruit). Chayote (Sechium edule) and bitter melon (Momordica charantia) are commonly cultivated in latin and asian countries respectively. And the list goes on…
Considering that there are so many edible species in this family, it is important to note that some are quite poisonous. The genus Bryonia is particularly toxic. Consumption can result in dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea, and ultimately, death. As Thomas Elpel states in his book Botany in a Day, “this plant is not for amateurs.”
Researching this family has been fun, and this post barely scratches the surface of this remarkable group of plants. One species in particular that stands out to me is Alsomitra macrocarpa, a liana from the tropical forests of Asia. Commonly known as Javan cucumber, this plant produces football-sized fruits packed with numerous seeds that are equipped with expansive, paper-thin “wings” that assist the seed in traveling many yards away from its parent plant in hopes of finding room to grow free from competition. Here is a video demonstrating this resourceful seed: