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Cucurbitaceae

Cucurbitaceae A family of a few shrubby members, but mostly of tendrilclimbing herbs with weak, sappy stems and palmate leaves. The tendrils are coiled spirally, and arise beside the leaf bases. The flowers are unisexual, often dioecious, with five petals often joined below. The fruits are berries, often very large. There are many important food plants, e.g. Cucumis melo (melon), C. sativus (cucumber), Cucurbita pepo (gourd), marrows, pumpkins, and squashes. There are 121 genera, with 735 species, most of which are tropical or subtropical.

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"Cucurbitaceae." A Dictionary of Plant Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Cucurbitaceae." A Dictionary of Plant Sciences. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/cucurbitaceae

Gourd Family (Cucurbitaceae)

Gourd Family (Cucurbitaceae)

Biology of gourds

Agricultural species of gourds

More on the Cucurbita squashes of the Americas

Additional gourds native to North America

Resources

Gourds and their relatives are various species of plants in the family Cucurbitaceae. There are about 750 species in this family divided among 90 genera. Some members of the gourd family include the cucumber, squash, melon, and pumpkin. Most are tropical or subtropical, but a few occur in temperate climates. A few produce large, edible fruits, some of which are ancient food plants. Gourds are still economically important as foods and for other reasons.

Biology of gourds

Plants in the gourd family are herbaceous or semi-woody, climbing, or trailing plants. Their leaves are commonly palmately lobed or unlobed and are arranged in an alternate fashion along the stem. Special structures known as tendrils develop in the

area between the leaf and the stem in some species of gourds. The thin tendrils grow in a spiral and help to anchor the stem as it climbs or spreads over the ground.

The flowers of species in the gourd family are unisexual, containing either male stamens or female pistils, but not both. Depending on the species, individual plants may be monoecious and have unisexual flowers of both sexes, or dioecious, meaning only one sex is represented on the plant. Gourd flowers are radially symmetric, that is, the left and right halves look identical. They can be large and trumpet-shaped in some species. The petals are most commonly yellow or white.

Strictly speaking, the fruits of members of the gourd family are a type of berry, that is, a fleshy, multiseeded fruit sometimes known as a pepo. The pepos of some cultivated varieties of squashes and pumpkins can be enormous, weighing as much as hundreds of pounds and representing the worlds largest fruits. In many species of gourds, the fruit is indehiscent, meaning it does not open when ripe to disperse the seeds. With few exceptions, the natural dispersal mechanisms of the pepos of members of the Cucurbitaceae are animals, which eat the fruit and later deposit the seeds when they defecate some distance away from the parent plant.

The seeds of plants in the Cucurbitaceae are usually rather large and flattened, and they commonly have a large concentration of oils.

Agricultural species of gourds

Various species in the gourd family are cultivated as agricultural crops. The taxonomy of some of the groups 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 typesthe so-called vegetable fruits such as cucumber, pumpkin, and squash, and the sweeter melons.

The cucumber (Cucumis sativus ) is an annual plant, probably 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 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 that 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, and 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 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 pounds (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.

The melon, muskmelon, winter melon, cantaloupe, or honeydew (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 that can be eaten fresh. This species occurs in many varieties 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 pounds (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 chayotes underground tuber 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 dishrag 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 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.

More on the Cucurbita squashes of the Americas

The pre-Columbian aboriginal peoples of North, Central, and South America cultivated or otherwise

KEY TERMS

Berry A soft, multiseeded fruit developed from a single compound ovary.

Dioecious Plants in which male and female flowers occur on separate plants.

Indehiscent Refers to a fruit that does not spontaneously split along a seam when it is ripe to disperse the seeds.

Monoecious A plant breeding system in which male and female reproductive structures are present on the same plant, although not necessarily in the same flowers.

Pepo A berry developed from a single, compound ovary and having a hard, firm rind and a soft, pulpy interior.

Tendril A spirally winding, clinging organ that is used by climbing plants to attach to their supporting substrate.

used about 17 species of squashes and gourds in the genus Cucurbita, a genus indigenous to the Americas.

Cucurbita fruits were used in many ways, and some of these practices still persist. The ripe fruits can be cooked and eaten as vegetables. The fruits of several species are especially useful as foods because they can be stored for several months without rotting. For even longer-term storage, the squashes can be cut into strips and dried in the sun. In addition, the nutritious oil-rich seeds of these gourds can be eaten fresh or roasted, and they also store well.

The best-known species of squash is Cucurbita pepo, the progenitor of cultivated pumpkins and squashes, as well as numerous other useful cultivars. According to archaeological evidence, this species has been used by humans for as long as 7,000 years. Other cultivated species include several known as winter squash or pumpkin (Cucurbita mixta, C. moschata, and C. maxima ) and the malabar or fig-leaf gourd (C. ficifolia ).

The buffalo gourd or chilicote (C. foetidissima ) is a species native to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. This relatively drought-resistant perennial species was harvested by pre-Columbian Native Americans, although they apparently did not cultivate the plant.

Additional gourds native to North America

Most species in the gourd family are tropical and subtropical in their distribution. However, a few occur in the northern temperate zone, including several native to North America. These wild plants are not eaten by people.

The creeping cucumber (Melothira pendula ) is widespread in woods in the United States and south into Mexico. The bur-cucumber (Sicyos angulatus ) occurs in moist habitats from southeastern Canada to Florida and Arizona.

The balsam apple or squirting cucumber (Echinocystis lobata ) is an annual climbing plant that occurs in moist thickets and disturbed places over much of southern Canada and the United States. When the green inflated spiny fruits of the squirting cucumber are ripe, they eject their seeds under hydrostatic pressure so they are dispersed some distance away from the parent plant.

Resources

BOOKS

Brucher, H. Useful Plants of Neotropical Origin and Their Wild Relatives. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1989.

Judd, Walter S., Christopher Campbell, Elizabeth A. Kellogg, Michael J. Donoghue, and Peter Stevens. Plant Systematics: A Phylogenetic Approach. 2nd ed. with CD-ROM. Suderland, MD: Sinauer, 2002.

Klein, R.M. The Green World. An Introduction to Plants and People. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.

Whitaker, T.W., and G.N. Davis. Cucurbits. Botany, Cultivation, and Utilization. New York: Interscience Publishing, 1962.

OTHER

Botanical Online. Gourd Family: Curcurbitaceae <http://www.botanical-online.com/familiacucurbitaceasangles.htm> (accessed November 25, 2006).

Univesity of California, Los Angeles: Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden. Curcurbitaceae: Fruits for Peons, Pilgrims, and Pharaohs <http://www.botgard.ucla.edu/html/botanytextbooks/economicbotany/Cucurbita/index.html>(accessed November 25, 2006).

Bill Freedman

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"Gourd Family (Cucurbitaceae)." The Gale Encyclopedia of Science. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Gourd Family (Cucurbitaceae)." The Gale Encyclopedia of Science. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gourd-family-cucurbitaceae

"Gourd Family (Cucurbitaceae)." The Gale Encyclopedia of Science. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gourd-family-cucurbitaceae