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What is Cucurbita?

By N. Freim
Updated May 16, 2024
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When Halloween comes around, the cucurbita becomes very popular. The genus consists of gourds grown on trailing vines. There is a great amount of diversity in the size and shape of the varieties, from giant pumpkins to dainty cucumbers. The cucurbita fall roughly into two groups. The summer varieties are eaten whole, but the winter varieties have tough rinds that are usually thrown away. The plant does best in warm, sunny climates with plenty of space to grow.

Cucurbita is a genus of climbing or trailing annuals. There are many varieties in the family, including well-known plants like pumpkin, cucumber, and zucchini. These plants do best in warm weather and feature edible gourds, which fall into two main groups. Summer squash have soft skin and are eaten while relatively young and small. The winter squash have hard protective shells that are usually discarded.

Popular gourds in the cucurbita pepo variety are acorn squash, zucchini, and summer squash. While zucchini does not have much difference in flavor whether raw or cooked, the texture changes greatly. Smaller gourds of summer squash, about 4 to 6 inches (10.2-15.2 cm) long, taste best.

The best known of the cucurbita pepo is probably the pumpkin. These round orange gourds can reach anywhere between 2 and 20 pounds(0.9 and 9.1 kg). These have become a staple in America for Halloween. The hard outer peels are carved while the inside is hollowed out. The seeds are often toasted and eaten as a snack.

Despite the pumpkin’s popularity, its cousin the cucurbita maxima, or mammoth pumpkin, is a bit more notorious. This variety can grow up to 100 pounds (45.4 kg). These are usually grown by hand for contests, not to be eaten. The plant is hand pollinated and nurtured to produce two fruits. One is usually then sacrificed to let the other grow larger.

There is a big range of difference in size, shape, and flavor among cucurbitas. Cucumbers are no more than a few inches (7 cm) in diameter. Vegetable squash is small, oval, and smooth and cooks up into strands like pasta. The butternut squash is a cylindrical gourd that is best when cubed and cooked. The banana squash is another of the cucurbita maxima variety, a large, long, odd-looking gourd.

In general, cucurbita should be planted about 4 feet (1.2 m) apart. The plants need full sun and a light soil. They are susceptible to squash bugs and vine borers, so gardeners need to watch the plants carefully. Frost can kill the plants, so the cucurbita should be harvested before the weather turns cold.

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