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Cucurbita species were already widely cultivated in North America before the arrival of Europeans. Archaeologists have found evidence of C. pepo in Mexico dated at from 7,000 to 5,000 B.C., along with artifacts from cultivation in numerous sites in the southwestern U.S. (Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado), and east to Illinois, from the past 2,000 to 3,000 years.
Cucurbita species are frost-intolerant herbaceous plants, usually annual but occasionally perennial, with fibrous or sometimes tuberous roots. Stems, which are more or less prickly, may be trailing or climbing (with tendrils) or upright and bushy (but under 1 meter tall). Leaves are simple, alternate, and shallowly to deeply lobed. Most species are monoecious; female flowers are generally yellow, with 5 petals, often fused at the base.
Cucurbita fruits, technically called pepos, come in an astonishing range of shapes, sizes, and colors and textures (of both skin and flesh). Fruits may be globose, oblong or elongate, cylindrical, or even flattened, and some forms have crooked or elongated necks. They range from the size of a plum to the pumpkin weighing 821.23 kg (1,810 lb 8 oz), recorded as the world’s largest in 2010. Skin colors vary from white to cream to yellow to orange to green; some cultivars have variegated fruits. The surface of the fruit may be smooth, scalloped, ridged, or warty; in C. pepo, the skin is thin and edible, whereas in C. maxima, the skins are thicker and harder, and are generally not eaten.
The flesh of the fruits is cooked and eaten as a vegetable, or made into purees, soups, or pies. Flowers are sometimes eaten. Seeds of C. maxima are high in protein and minerals, and are eaten raw, toasted, or pressed to make oil. In South and Central America, traditional medicinal uses of Cucurbita species seeds include as a vermifuge and antihelmintic (to kill worms and intestinal parasites), and to treat fevers, jaundice, and diabetes.
World production of pumpkins, squashes, and gourds in 2009 (of all species) was 22.1 million tons harvested from 1.7 million hectares, valued at $5.2 billion U.S. dollars. Leading producers were China, Russia, India, the U.S., and Egypt.
(Decker-Walters 1990, Encyclopedia Britannica 1993, FAOSTAT 2011, Guinnessworldrecords.com 2011, Schultes 1990, Whittaker and Davis 1962)