Cucurbits - species and varieties
Cucurbita pepo is native to North America. It is not known in the wild, though related species with small, hard, bitter fruit still grow in Mexico. Characteristically, its fruit stalk is a ridged cylinder that does not become corky when the fruit reaches maturity.
Cucurbita pepo has a huge range of fruit types, including:
• Pumpkins (eg 'Tom Fox') are rounded or flattened, often ribbed fruits.
• Marrows (eg 'Golden Marrow') are long or rounded fruits of various colours. The immature fruits are eaten as courgettes or zucchini.
• Summer squash (eg 'Custard White' and 'Crookneck') are highly ornamental fruits.
Native to South America, Cucurbita maxima is found in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay. It was present in coastal Peru at least 4000 years ago. It is easily identified by its fruiting stalk, which becomes swollen and corky when the fruit is ripe. Among the fruits are many ornamental forms with thick, hard shells.
Cultivars can be divided into two groups:
• Pumpkins, including varieties with some of the largest fruits of the vegetable world (eg 'Atlantic Giant' and 'Hundredweight').
• Winter squash have highly ornamental, edible fruits that ripen in the autumn (eg 'Turk's Turban', 'Golden Hubbard', 'Sweet Mama' and 'Banana Pink').
Cucurbita moschata was probably the first species in the pumpkin and squash genus Cucurbita to be cultivated. Archaeological evidence shows it was being used in southern Mexico and Peru from around 7500 years ago. Cucurbita moschata can be recognized by its five-angled, knobbly fruiting stalk, which does not become corky. The stalk drops off, leaving a star-shaped scar on the fruit.
Amongst the cultivars of Cucurbita moschata are 'Butternut', 'Golden Cushaw' and 'Futsu Black'.
Watermelon - Citrullus lanata
Watermelons are originally from the drier areas of tropical and subtropical Africa. They have been cultivated in the Mediterranean region for over 3000 years and are now grown throughout the tropics and subtropics.
The flesh is over 90% water. It is usually red or yellow, but can be pink, orange or white.
Globe cucumber - Cucumis prophetarum
The globe cucumber is found from tropical Africa to Arabia. Its unripe fruits are pickled like those of its relative, the common cucumber (Cucumis sativus). Although its fruits are bitter when ripe, they are sometimes eaten boiled. The leaves are also edible
Hedgehog gourd - Cucumis metuliferus
This spiny-fruited African relative of the cucumber is being grown in New Zealand and marketed under the name 'Kiwano', with the hope of replicating the success of the kiwifruit.
When mature, its fruits are an attractive reddish-orange colour and filled with seeds in a jelly-like pulp.
Bottle gourd - Lagenaria siceraria
Bottle gourds are originally from Africa and Madagascar, but are now grown throughout the tropics. Their use dates back at least to the time of the Ancient Egyptians.
Bottle gourds appear in many diverse shapes and sizes. When dried, they are used as water bottles, ladles, cups, musical instruments, fish net floats and rafts.
Angled loofah - Luffa actangula
The angled loofah grows wild in India and is cultivated throughout much of Asia. Sometimes, the fruits grow up to two metres long. When young, they are sliced, boiled and eaten as a vegetable. They are valued for their crisp texture and unusual cross-section. The leaves are also edible.
Smooth loofah - Luffa cylindrica
Have you used this in the bath? This gourd is the source of the familiar bath loofah. Ripe loofah gourds are soaked in water (retted) to remove the skin and pulp and the fibrous skeleton is then dried for use.
Loofahs are also used to stuff saddles and cushions and as filters to extract oil from water.
Balsam apple - Momordica balsamina
The young fruits of balsam apple are edible, with a tangy flavour. They are harvested when they are just turning orange but are still firm. If left to mature, they become very bitter. Young shoots, leaves and flowers are also eaten.
This species was domesticated in Asia and is now cultivated worldwide.
Wax gourd - Benincasa hispida
This large gourd has been cultivated in Asia for over 2300 years. The waxy layer that covers the mature fruits can be used to make candles. Although the fruits can be eaten raw, they are more often cooked as a vegetable curry, pickled or candied. The young leaves and flower buds can also be cooked and eaten.
Vine of Sodom - Citrullus colocynthis
Like all other members of the genus Citrullus, this species originates in Africa although it also occurs wild in India. In cultivation, it is grown in Spain, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Iraq and the Middle East.
A naturally perennial species often grown as an annual, it produces smooth yellow fruit about the same size as an orange. When ripe, the fruit has a white spongy pulp with numerous white seeds.
The drug 'colocynthin' is produced from the dried pulp of unripe but mature-sized fruits. At one time, this powerful purgative was used to relieve extreme irritability and anger, dizziness, headaches and stomach pains. Even in small doses, it can be lethal.
West Indian gherkin - Cucumis anguria
This native of Africa was taken to the West Indies when the slave trade was active. It has spread from there to many Latin American countries.
The small spiny egg-shaped fruits are produced in huge numbers. Immature fruits are pickled and sold as gherkins, but mature fruits are used in soups and stews. In Mexico a root extract is valued as a remedy for 'stomach trouble'. The inhabitants of Columbia believe that the fruit, taken as a salad, dissolves kidney stones. The fresh fruit is also eaten raw in Curaçao to treat jaundice.
Malabar gourd - Cucurbita ficifolia
This is the most distinctive of the five Cucurbita species with its peculiar fruits that resemble large oblong watermelons with broad black edible seeds.
In the Americas, it is common in the mountains from northern Mexico to northern Argentina and Chile. Archaeological evidence of its use in Peru dates back at least 5000 years.
Immature fruits are treated as a summer squash. Their greenish white flesh makes delicately flavoured soups. Candied with sugar, the flesh becomes a 'dulce' (sweetmeat) of Latin America. An added bonus is that the fruits can be stored for over a year without refrigeration. In India, Malabar gourd is grown in highland regions for livestock feed.
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