Year of Pollination: Hand Pollinating Cucurbits

Because of their large, open, unisexual flowers, plants in the gourd family are perfect for practicing hand pollination. There are several species in this family that are commonly grown in gardens, and all can be hand pollinated. Hand pollination of cucurbits is most often done when there are problems with pollination (lack of pollinators, etc.) or for seed saving purposes (i.e. to ensure that a variety breeds true). It can also be done just for fun, and that’s mostly what this post is about.

But first, if your goal is to save seeds and maintain the integrity of the varieties you are growing, there are a few things to keep in mind. Cucumbers, melons, and watermelons are all different species (Cucumis sativus, Cucumis melo, and Citrullus lanatus respectively), so you won’t have to worry about crosses between these crops. You will, however, have to worry about crosses between different varieties within individual species. So, for example, if you are growing multiple varieties of cucumbers – or if your close neighbors are also growing cucumbers – you should hand pollinate. Summer squash, winter squash, pumpkins, and some gourds are members of at least four species in the genus Cucurbita (C. pepo, C. maxima, C. mixta, and C. moschata). There is a possibility of hybridization between some of these species as well as between varieties within the same species, so precautions should definitely be taken when saving seeds for these crops. This can mean, along with hand pollination, placing bags over flowers so that bees are unable to bring in pollen from “the wrong” plants.

There are plenty of great resources about saving seeds that offer much more detail than I have gone into here, one of which is a book by Marc Rogers called Saving Seeds. Consult such resources if you would like to try your hand at seed saving. It’s easier than you might think, and it’s very rewarding.

Regardless why you are hand pollinating your cucurbits, the first step in the process is differentiating a male flower from a female flower. This is simple. Female flowers in the family Cucurbitaceae have inferior ovaries, meaning that the ovary sits below the area where the petals and other flower parts are attached. The ovaries are quite pronounced and resemble a miniature fruit. The male flowers lack ovaries, so instead are simply attached to a slender stem. You can also observe the sex organs themselves – male flowers have stamens, female flowers have carpels. Male and female flowers may also be located on different areas of the plant and may open at different times of the day. All that being said, the most obvious indication is the “mini-fruit” at the base of the flower or lack thereof.

Cucurbit flowers: male (top) and female (bottom) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Cucurbit flowers: male (top two photos) and female (bottom two photos) – image credit: wikimedia commons

Once you have identified your flowers, you have a limited amount of time to hand pollinate them. It’s best to find flowers that are just starting to open, as the female flowers may only be receptive for as little as 24 hours. You can use a cotton swab to gather pollen from the male flower, or you can simply pluck the flower from the plant, remove the petals, and touch the pollen-loaded anthers to the stigmas of a female flower. Either way, you must get the pollen from the male parts of a flower to the female parts of a flower as that is the essence of pollination. Simply put, it’s plant sex. Play some soft jazz while you do it if you want to.

A honeybee in a squash flower

A female squash flower with honeybee inside

A honeybee covered in pollen drinking the nectar of a female squash flower

Honeybee covered in pollen drinking the nectar of a female squash flower

As with saving seeds, there are a lot of resources out there explaining the details of hand pollinating cucurbit flowers, including this guide from Missouri Botanical Garden and the following You Tube Video.

 

While we are on the subject of cucurbit flowers, it should be noted that squash flowers are edible and can be prepared in a variety of ways, as described in this post at The Kitchn. Just another reason to be impressed by this amazing group of plants.

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The Gourd Family

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 certainly a family of plants worth celebrating.

Chinese lardplant (Hodgsonia heteroclita) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Chinese lardplant (Hodgsonia heteroclita) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

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.

The flowers of balsam apple (Momordica balsamina) - photo credit: eol.org

Balsam apple (Momordica balsamina) – photo credit: eol.org

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.

The spiky fruits of wild cucumber (Echinocystus lobata) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

The spiky fruits of wild cucumber (Echinocystus lobata) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

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.”

White bryony (Bryonia dioica) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

White bryony (Bryonia dioica) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

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: