With a colourful array of shapes and sizes, the diverse gourd family (Cucurbitaceae) includes squash, pumpkins, and cucumbers, as well as melons and inedible squash, or gourds. These tendril‐bearing vines are also known as cucurbits, Latin for the squash portion of the family.
Squash varieties are usually referred to as either summer or winter. If squash is harvested when it’s immature (in the summer), it’s called summer squash. The word squash, in fact, comes from “askutasquash,” a Native American word meaning “to be eaten green.” All summer squash are members of the Cucurbita pepo genus.
Summer squash are available early in the season and have thin edible skins. The most common summer squash is the courgette (as it’s known in Britain and France) or zucchini (its name in Italy and the US). A large, mature courgette used for stuffing is called a marrow. Also popular are the yellow crookneck and straight neck varieties. The third major type is the pattypan, a saucer‐shaped squash with a scalloped edge. Other varieties include ‘Roly Poly’ (round softball‐sized courgettes), the round green ‘Eightball,’ and even a ‘White Egyptian’ zucchini.
Squash harvested at maturity is called winter squash. Winter squash are left to ripen on the vine, developing a hard rind.
Winter squash in the Cucurbita pepo species include acorn, dumpling, white‐ and green‐striped delicata, and spaghetti squash (with strand‐like flesh that can be served with sauce like pasta). Cucurbita moschata varieties include the tan, pear‐shaped butternut, the most common of the winter squashes, and the “cheese” squashes, which look like flat pumpkins or wheels of cheese. In the Cucurbita maxima group are the tasty buttercup, the large, cylindrical banana, and the giant blue‐green Hubbard, one of the best winter keepers due to its thick skin. More exotic varieties include the colourful ‘Turk’s Turban’ (which resembles its namesake headdress) and ‘Red Kuri’ (a Japanese variety also known as “Baby Red Hubbard”).
What’s the difference between a pumpkin and a squash?
Actually, the two terms have no exact botanical definition. The word pumpkin comes from the French pampion, which means “sun‐baked squash”. The name pumpkin is often used interchangeably with squash. In Britain, pumpkin means any number of large winter squashes of the family Cucurbita maxima. In the UK, pumpkin refers to the round, orange winter squashes used at Halloween, the most common of which are varieties of Cucurbita pepo. The Cucurbita pepo varieties include ‘Connecticut Field,’ ‘Howden Field,’ ‘Small Sugar,’ and ‘Rouge Vif d’Etampes,’ which was used as the model for Cinderella’s carriage.
Pumpkins range in size from the Cucurbita maximas ‐ such as ‘Atlantic Giant,’ ‘Big Max,’ ‘Mammoth,’ and ‘Boston Marrow’ ‐ to the tiny, ornamental ‘Jack Be Littles.’ Cucurbita moschata varieties include ‘Long Island Cheese’ and ‘Golden Cushaw’.
Pumpkins are native to North America and were first cultivated in Mexico between 7,000 and 5,000 B.C. Pumpkin, along with other squash, was a staple of the Native American diet.
Choose pumpkin varieties based on intended use. Most ornamental varieties are Cucurbita pepo ‐ these make great jack‐o‐lanterns, and some are good all‐purpose pumpkins. Cucurbita moschata varieties are great for pies. This tan‐skinned variety is the type most often used in canned pumpkin. So‐called sugar pumpkins such as ‘New England Pie’ are ‐ not surprisingly ‐ also great for pies.
Virtually all prizewinners for biggest pumpkin at the agricultural fairs are ‘Atlantic Giants’. How big is the world’s largest pumpkin? Larry Checkon of the US set a new world record in 2005 with a 666.32 kg (1469 lb.) ‘Atlantic Giant.’
The cucumber (Cucumis sativus) is one of the oldest cultivated vegetables. It has been around for centuries ‐ from ancient Mesopotamia around 2000 B.C. to Rome in the first century A.D. Among cucumber varieties are smooth‐skinned slicers, spiny pickling cukes, long English hot‐house, and orientals.
Cucumbers are about 90 percent water. Common slicing cucumbers bought at the supermarket are often waxed to improve long keeping. Thin‐skinned English hot house (also called Dutch, or European) cucumbers are grown in greenhouses and are usually wrapped shrink‐wrapped in cling film as they spoil more quickly. The English cucumber has very few seeds and is more digestible than the common cucumber. Many seed catalogues offer “burpless” varieties as well. One unusual variety is the round, yellow ‘Lemon’ cuke.
The Versatile Cucurbits
The cucurbits offer excellent versatility in the kitchen. Winter squash can be baked or boiled; summer squash can be sautéed, steamed, or eaten raw; and what would a summer salad be without fresh cucumbers? The cucurbits offer colourful seasonal additions to any meal.