Squash and Gourds

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SQUASH AND GOURDS. Cucurbitaceae is a highly specialized and unique family of mainly trailing plants of subtropical or tropical, moist or dry habitats. Plants bear mostly palmately lobed, alternate, and simple leaves and have spiraling tendrils. Plants are mostly monoecious with yellow flowers, but sometimes with white petals, and inferior ovaries. The fruits are specialized berries called pepos and are of variable size. Some are among the largest fruits produced by any plant group. Because of their ability to produce large fruits, they lend themselves to competition. By the early twenty-first century the largest recorded fruit, which weighed a phenomenal 1,140 pounds (517 kilograms) was grown by Dave Stelts of Leetonia, Ohio, in 2000.

Plant Descriptions

Cucurbit is a general term used to describe all members of the Cucurbitaceae family, which includes the common vegetables cucumber, melon, and watermelon as well as the focus of this section, squash, pumpkin, and gourd. The common names in the three genera and seven species that represent the subject of this essay overlap considerably.

Products commonly called squash, pumpkin, or gourd are found in four of the seven species. The gourds are the source of least confusion since they are more or less readily identified by appearance regardless of species. Squash and pumpkin are used interchangeably depending on local custom. The sole exception is the decorative or Halloween pumpkin Cucurbita pepo, which is always referred to by that name. Defining characteristics of the cultivated Cucurbita species are in Table 1. Within squash it is useful to differentiate between summer and winter types. The summer types (yellow, zucchini, or scallop) are fast maturing, have soft rinds, are consumed when the fruit is immature, and are quite perishable. On the other hand, the winter squash take longer to mature, one hundred days versus fifty days, have a long storage life, several months versus two weeks, are consumed when the fruits and seeds are fully mature, and have durable rinds. Any confusion that may exist is among academics who quibble over nomenclature. Retailers, consumers, and cooks generally differentiate among squash, pumpkin, and gourd, and if not little damage is done.

History, Ethnography, and Symbolism of Production and Consumption

The word "pumpkin" is derived from the Old English pompion (originally Latin pepo and Greek pepon ) and refers to a large melon or gourd. It was originally applied to the genus Legenaria but was later transferred to the New World Cucurbita. The more general word "squash" is a derivation of a New England Native American term "askutasquash," meaning vegetables consumed while green, in other words, a summer squash. Cucurbits have cultural and economic significance cross-culturally. Ralf Norrman and Jon Haarberg (1980) examined the symbolic place of cucurbits in Western literature and culture and further extended their analysis to selected non-Western cultural settings. They noted that cucurbits have complex semiotic associations with sex and sexuality, fertility, vitality, moisture, creative power, rapid growth, and sudden death. Cucurbits also figure prominently in the symbolism and cosmologies of many non-Western societies.

Some defining characteristics of the cultivated Cucurbita species
Species Seed Leaf Stem Peduncle Fruit flesh
C. argyrosperma Large, white, prominent margin that may be scalloped Moderately lobed, short, soft pubescence Hard, angular Hard, corky, sometimes swollen Very coarse, pale yellow
C. ficifolia Black or tan, smooth margin Deeply lobed, smooth margin, round, prickly Hard, grooved Hard, angled, slightly expanded at fruit attachment Coarse, stringy, white
C. maxima White to brown, oblique seed scar Almost round, unlobed prickly Soft, round Round, corky, not flared at fruit attachment Fine, not fibrous, deep orange
C. moschata White to brown, rough margin, oblique seed scar Shallow lobes, almost round, soft pubescence Hard, ridged Hard, angled, flared at fruit attachment Fine, not fibrous, deep orange
C. pepo Light tan, prominent smooth margin, rounded seed scar Deeply lobed, very prickly Hard, ridged Hard, angled, ridged Coarse, orange

Squash was domesticated in a variety of New World sites, including central Mexico, Peru, and the eastern United States, as early as 10,000 B.P. (Smith 1997). The more specific timing, locations, and hypothetical dynamics of the domestication processes of the five principal species of domesticated squash are reviewed in a number of texts. Squash, along with maize (corn) and beans, formed the staple carbohydrate cores of Mesoamerican crop complexes that were the basis for state formation in the region (Scarre and Fagan, 1997). These cultigens were also significant food sources for precontact Native Americans in North America. Squash diffused to the Old World after 1492 through the networks of trade, migration, and commodity chains linked to colonialism and the expansion of global capitalism.

Squash is cultivated in the twenty-first century throughout the Americas, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, China, India, and Indonesia. Virtually all parts of domesticated squash, including fruits, seeds, flowers, and leaves, can be eaten. Cross-cultural culinary uses are quite varied. The fruits are typically boiled, sometimes fried or added to soups or curries. Squash is also the basis of candy and fermented beverages in Latin America. The seeds of squash are consumed raw or are cooked in various forms in China, India, and Mexico. Some Native Americans, most notably the Sioux of the Great Plains, traditionally flattened strips of fresh pumpkins, dried them, and made them into mats. Squash seeds are also used in a number of traditional folk medicine applications.

Pumpkins have an important place in the social history, folklore, and cultural symbolism of the United States. In early colonial New England settlers sliced off the tops of pumpkins, removed the seeds, filled the insides with honey, milk, and spices or fruit and then baked the pumpkin in the hot coals of an open fire. Pumpkins were therefore the crust and not the filling of the early precursors of pumpkin pie. Settlers also used pumpkins in beer, breads, puddings, cookies, and many other foods, including pumpkin sauce, that is, pumpkins stewed with butter, vinegar, and spices. Many of these uses of pumpkins continue in the North American diet in the twenty-first century. The most common nonfood use of pumpkins in the United States is for decorative purposes, including the carving of Halloween jack-o'-lanterns.

Gourds are among the world's oldest domesticated plants, dating back to at least 8000 B.P. Three principal genera of gourds, Legeneria (including the bottle gourd), Trichosanthes (including the snake gourd), and Momordica (including the bitter gourd), originated in the Old World tropics. They have a wide range of economic, symbolic, ritual, and artistic functions cross-culturally. For example, Sally Price, in her ethnographic study of the Saramaka of Suriname, analyzes how elaborately carved and decorated calabashes (in this case the tree gourds Crescentia cujete, which are not cucurbits) figure prominently in women's labor, production, artistic expression, ritual exchanges, status, and power relationships in this Maroon society (Price, 1993).

Snake gourds are cultivated in the humid tropics and subtropics of Asia, Latin America, and Africa. The young fruits are consumed boiled or in curries, the stem tips and leaves may also be eaten, and the roots and seeds have a wide range of uses in traditional medicine throughout Southeast Asia. Bitter gourds were domesticated in Asia and diffused to the New World via the transatlantic slave trade. They are popular vegetables throughout India, China, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and the Caribbean. As with snake gourd, the plant is used both as food and in a range of medicinal applications cross-culturally.

Bottle gourd was widely distributed as an early cultigen throughout the New World but is generally believed to be of African origin. It remains unclear as to how the bottle gourd diffused from Africa to the New World, although both human agency and oceanic drift currents have been proposed as mechanisms. Bottle gourd is principally used as a "bottle or container for both liquid and dry materials" (Heiser, 1979, p. 71) but also for food, floats, musical instruments, medicine, artistic expression, and in some cultures penis coverings. Among the Dani, an indigenous culture of highland western New Guinea (Irian Jaya), "from the age of four or five, males wear a holim or penis gourd at all times except when urinating or having sexual intercourse" (Heider, 1979, p. 56). Karl Heider notes that each Dani man owns "whole wardrobes of penis gourds of different lengths and shapes . . . and the gourd itself is not a focus or symbol of masculinity or sexuality." In the late twentieth century, Dani men continued to wear penis gourds in public, in defiance of Indonesian government attempts to ban the coverings, as a symbolic resistance to Indonesian state control over the region. In many societies bottle gourds have generally been displaced by the use of plastic and other industrially manufactured materials except in poorer regions or where gourds continue to have local cultural, ritual, or artistic significance.


Squash, pumpkin, and gourd are produced worldwide in temperate, subtropical, and tropical climates. They constitute an important but not life-sustaining part of the diet for many cultures. Production data is probably not reliable because these products do not usually enter into international commerce and are relatively minor in importance. For example, production data became available in the United States for these crops only in 2000. Michigan and New York are the leading producers of decorative pumpkins, and Georgia and Florida are the leading producers of summer squash. The available world data show that in the early twenty-first century Asia was the principal producer of these cucurbits and that China and India accounted for nearly half of the reported world production.

The nutritional value of these cucurbits on the whole is not exceptional since they are mostly water. Pumpkin fruits, flowers, and leaves and winter squash fruits are, however, good sources of vitamin A, which may be scarce in the diets of those in some developing countries. Pumpkin seeds are rich in protein, fat, and carbohydrate but usually are not consumed in large quantities. Many cucurbits are low in fat and carbohydrates, which makes them useful in diets of those concerned with weight control in developed countries.

The principal Cucurbita species may be further grouped according to horticultural traits (Table 2). Fruit shape and color and rind durability are the main discriminating characteristics. Some of the types are arbitrary and of historical interest only. For example, cushaw squash, winter crookneck squash, and marrow squash are not commonly grown, but they may be regionally important. The gourds and pumpkins of C. pepo are mostly grown for ornamental rather than culinary purposes and are increasing in economic importance in the United States. Show pumpkins are grown exclusively for competition in the heaviest-fruit contests held in various parts of the United States. Note that the word "pumpkin" or "squash" has been attached to each type. Some may disagree with these designations. The hard-rind types are generally called winter squash, whereas the soft-rind types (cocozelle, crookneck, scallop, straightneck, vegetable marrow, and zucchini) are generally referred to as summer squash. Winter squash are mostly indeterminate

Horticultural types in Cucurbita spp.
Species Type Description Typical Cultivars
C. argyrosperma Cushaw squash Striped, green or white hard rind. Pear shaped or with a straight or curved neck. Green Striped Cushaw (Figure13), Japanese Pie, Tennessee Sweet Potato
C. moschata Tropical pumpkin Round, oblate, or irregular shape. Green, buff, yellow, or piebald hard rind. La Primera, Seminole, Solar, Borenquin
  Cheese pumpkin Variable shape, smooth, hard, buff-colored hard rind. Dickinson, Kentucky Field
  Neck squash Long curved or straight neck. Smooth hard rind fruit, usually buff. Golden Crookneck, Winter Crookneck, Waltham Butternut, Zenith, Ultra
C. maxima Banana squash Elongated fruit pointed at the ends. Orange or pink moderately hard rind. Banana, Pink Banana
  Delicious squash Top shaped. Orange or green hard rind. Delicious, Golden Delicious
  Hubbard squash Round in the middle tapering at each end. Blue, orange, or green hard warty rind. Hubbard, Blue Hubbard, Golden Hubbard
  Marrow squash Lemon-shaped with orange hard rind. Boston Marrow
  Show pumpkin Very large globular, sutured, light orange fruit. Moderately hard rind. Atlantic Giant, Big Max
  Turban squash Turban shaped with a large button. Hard rind. Turks Turban, Warren, Turks Cap
C. pepo Acorn squash Acorn-shaped, grooved fruit. Dark green, orange, or white hard rind. Table Ace, Tay Belle, Heart of Gold, Table Gold
  Cocozelle squash Long, cylindrical, bulbous blossom end. Striped or variegated green soft rind. Cocozelle, Long Cocozelle
  Crookneck squash Elongated with narrow curved neck. Yellow soft rind. Dixie, Yellow Summer Crookneck, Supersett
  Ornamental gourd Variously shaped and colored. Smooth or warty hard rind. Egg, Striped, Pear, Bicolor, Spoon, Orange Ball, Crown of Thorns, Warted
  Pumpkin Large, round, oval oblate shape. Mostly orange, sometimes white relatively soft rind. Connecticut Field, Small Sugar, Howden, Jack-Be-Little
  Scallop squash Flattened with scalloped margins. White, yellow, green, or bicolored soft rind. White Bush Scallop, Peter Pan, Sunburst
  Straightneck squash Long, cylindrical, yellow soft rind. Enterprise, Goldbar, Early Prolific Straightneck, Multipik
  Vegetable Marrow Short, tapered, cylindrical. Light green Clarita, Goya, Zahra, Caserta
  Zucchini squash Uniformly cylindrical. Green or yellow to gray soft rind. Dividend, Revenue, Spineless Beauty, Gold Rush

or vining in growth habit, and summer squash are mostly determinate or have a bush growth habit.

Squash and pumpkin are frost sensitive, so field establishment by seeds or by transplants two to four weeks old is made when no threat of frost remains. Summer squash plants are spaced three feet (one meter) apart in rows six feet (two meters) apart, and winter squash plants are spaced six feet apart in rows six to nine feet (two to three meters) apart. Local recommendations for crop management should be followed. Wild or domesticated bees are necessary for pollination and subsequent fruit enlargement since separate staminate (male) and pistil-late (female) flowers occur on these plants. Baby squash, harvested when the flower opens or shortly thereafter, do not require pollination.

With good growing conditions, summer squash should be ready for harvest in about forty days from establishment. Fruit should be harvested about six to eight days after pollination, when they are small and the rind has a distinctive sheen. The rind becomes dull in over-maturity with a concomitant loss of quality. Summer squash should be consumed soon after harvest for best quality but may be kept in a plastic bag in a home refrigerator for a few days. Summer squash fruits should be harvested every day or two in warm weather.

Winter or hard-shelled squash, because they are grown to maturity, require much longer to produce a marketable product, 80 to 110 days, depending on weather and cultivar. Fruits should be harvested when fully mature (when seeds are fully developed) but before they are injured by frost. Winter squash, unlike summer squash, have a long life after harvest. Storage at or near 50oF (10°C) and 50 percent relative humidity retains quality for several months. For instance, the tropical pumpkin (C. moschata) fruits have remained in good condition for two to three months in a garage in Florida in uncontrolled conditions.

Plant Improvement

The economically important types showed marked genetic improvement in the last half of the twentieth century. Previously improvement had been mainly by selection, first from wild types and later from landraces.

The use of F1 hybrids allows incorporation of dominant genes from two parents into the hybrid. For example, earliness in one parent can be combined with high culinary quality in the other parent to produce a superior hybrid. Often cited advantages of hybrids include uniformity, earliness, disease resistance, and intense fruit color. The B gene, originally obtained from an ornamental bicolor gourd, has been used to obtain bright yellow color in many C. pepo types. Exclusivity is usually not listed among the advantages of hybrids, but since the developer controls both parents, the hybrid cannot be duplicated by others. This fact provides the economic incentive for private development and competition among seed companies. Hybridity has been exploited most fully in cultivar development in summer squash, especially zucchini squash, and in decorative pumpkins.

Traditional plant-breeding techniques are most commonly utilized for improvement of these cucurbits. However, transgenic summer squash with resistance to cucumber mosaic virus, watermelon mosaic virus, and zucchini yellow mosaic virus have been developed and are used in areas where these diseases are a severe threat.

See also Cucumbers, Melons, and Other Cucurbits ; Fruit ; Mexico and Central America, Pre-Columbian ; Vegetables .


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David MaynardDonald N. Maynard