In 1996, a giant pumpkin broke the 1,000-pound barrier. Since then, several 2,000-plus-pound pumpkins have been documented. Pumpkins belong to the Cucurbitaceae family. Cucurbits are a curious group displaying a wide range in size from tiny marble-sized pumpkins to giant gourds measuring more than 7feet long.
The gourd family includes pumpkins, squash and cucumbers grown for food as well as gourds. Gourds have been used for musical instruments, pipes, masks, water jugs, dippers, birdhouses and sponges. Decorative gourds are etched, inked, painted and stained, creating beautiful works of art.
One gourd commonly used for artwork, the calabash, does not belong to the Cucurbitaceae family. The calabash gourd grows on a tropical tree that belongs to the Bignoniaceae family which includes the catalpa and the trumpet creeper vine. The fruit wall of this calabash is strong and slow to break down.
The bottle gourd, or calabash gourd, belonging to the Cucurbitaceae family bears a thinner walled, more fragile fruit. The bottle gourd can be harvested young to be consumed as food or harvested mature to be dried and used as a container.
Cucurbits are monoecious, bearing separate male and female flowers on the same plant. The male flowers open first, followed by the female flowers. Pollination occurs when both are open at the same time. Females are only open for one day, at which time they need to be visited by pollinators to ensure fertilization.
There are basically two species of pumpkins. Cucurbita pepo group includes jack o’ lantern pumpkins and pie pumpkins. Cucurbita maxima group includes the extremely large pumpkins grown for competitions.
There are three species of edible winter squash. Cucurbita pepo includes the acorn and spaghetti cultivars. Cucurbita moschata includes the butternut cultivars. Cucurbita maxima includes the Hubbard and buttercup cultivars. While most squash cultivars are grown for eating, there are a few used for ornamental purposes.
Delicata squash, also known as peanut or sweet potato squash, produces a small oblong fruit with a light colored flesh that tastes like sweet potatoes. The thin skin of this heirloom winter squash is delicate enough to eat but keeps it from being a good candidate for long-term storage. Store fruit in a cool, dark place for only a few weeks. Delicata is high in fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C and potassium. It is delicious.
The harvest time, curing time and storage life vary between different varieties of winter squash. Acorn squash can be stored for about two months, delicata and sweet dumpling for about three months, buttercup and Hubbard for about five months and butternut for about six months. For best flavor, harvest at maturity and cure buttercup, Hubbard and butternut before storing and eating.
Squash is low in calories, high in fiber and a good source of vitamin A. It can be eaten raw, cooked, pickled, candied or dried. Spaghetti squash is a tasty low-calorie substitute for pasta. Squash and pumpkins were originally grown for the seeds rather than the fleshy fruit.
Enjoy the curious cucurbits.