Cucurbits

Nature Notes by Dr. Frank Lang

It’s Halloween, what better topic for Nature Notes than a discussion of. . . the Cucurbitaceae. “What?”, you say. “I thought you’d pick something creepy, like bats, or spiders, or snakes, or politicians.” Sorry to disappoint, pumpkin head, but we are going to talk squash. My inspiration came this morning while I carved away on the family Jack O’ Lantern. The Cucurbitaceae is the squash, gourd, melon, pumpkin family. The family is mostly tropical and subtropical, with few temperate species.

One summer, I had occasion to examine Oregon’s only native cucurbit, Marah oregana,also known as old-man-in-the-ground, in some detail. The spiny fruit is extremely bitter and not at all palatable. Its common name is supposedly derived from a huge underground tuber-like structure. While botanizing the Pilot Rock area, with some Japanese guests, we came upon a marah plant on a road cut. After telling them about the plant, we got out our digging implements to look for the old man. It didn’t take long to discover he was there, a large underground structure with thick, ropy-looking limbs and three-foot body. We didn’t dig it all up, and we filled in the hole as good botanists do. What we got were very heavy chunks, saturated with water, which gets our native gourd through long, hot, dry summers.

We eat, as fruits and vegetables, many members of this family: melons, watermelons, cantaloupe, muskmelons, honeydew, casaba, and cucumbers and squashes, winter squash, summer squash, spaghetti squash, vegetable marrow, and zucchini, but not zucchini squash. Zucchini squash is redundant – zucchini is Italian for squash. Surprise, surprise, technically all these are fruits. Just because they are not sweet doesn’t make them vegetables. Any plant organ produced from the ovary of a flower, as these are, is a fruit.

Even that strange pear-shaped chayote with the large single seed is a fruit, though the taste and texture are somewhere near cucumber, and zucchini, with a splash of kohlrabi. Its mild flavor can stand some jacking up with spices. The entire plant is edible including its yam-like 20-pound root.

Not all are edible. The calabash or bottle gourd is one of our earliest cultivated plants. As pointed out in Heywood’s Flowering Plants of the World, it is the only species with an archaeologically documented pre-history in both hemispheres of planet Earth. The loofa sponge, that strange looking cylindrical object of the bath, is the bleached vascular skeleton of the fruit of Luffa, a genus in the Cucurbitaceae. Some cucurbits are used as a vermifuge (vemis = a worm, fugare = to put to flight) to clear human bowels of intestinal worms.

During Hallowe’en our pumpkin Jack 0′ Lantern cast its spell and lured several dozen ghosts and goblins from the darkness to our door. Maybe it’s the curmudgeon in me (or the glutton) but I much prefer my pumpkins in a pie.

— Dr. Frank Lang

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