The vine crops — cantaloupes (muskmelons), cucumbers, watermelons, squash and pumpkins — belong to the Cucurbitaceae family. Cucurbits are monoecious, meaning that male and female reproductive structures are produced in separate flowers on the same plant. Male flowers are born on long, slender stalks and female flowers always have a tiny immature fruit attached to the unopened flower.
If pollen from the male flower does not reach the female flower, the tiny fruit will drop off the plant. Sometimes, cucurbit flowers may be incompletely pollinated, resulting in “bottlenecking” where the stem end of the fruit is narrow and the blossom end of the fruit is wider.
The botanical classification for cucumber is Cucumis sativus. The cucumber is native to India and explorers who touched Virginia in 1584 mentioned them.
Presumably they had been spread by Native Americans after introduction by Spaniards far to the south. They were grown in the first permanent English settlements in Virginia in 1609 and in Massachusetts in 1629.
Today, vegetable growers use gynoecious hybrids, varieties that produce only female flowers to have more fruits produced. Included in the seed packet with the gynoecious variety is a non-gynoecious type that produces male flowers so it can pollinate the gynoecious hybrid.
Older varieties are more susceptible to bitterness, due to a compound called cucurbitacin that is produced close to the stem end of the fruit and is concentrated just under the peel. Hot weather brings out the bitterness. Gynoecious hybrids generally are not bitter. They set fruit parthenocarpically (no seeds) without the use of bees.
Cantaloupes were cultivated in Egypt and across to Iran and Northwest India dating as far back to Biblical times, about 2,400 B.C.
During the third century, the Romans were importing their melons from Armenia. These were not the large, weighty melons we know today but were about the size of oranges.
When the Roman Empire collapsed, Italy no longer received shipments of melons. It wasn’t until the 14th century that melons returned to Italy. At that point, the melons began to expand in size and weight.
During the 15th century, cantaloupes were growing in popularity in the southern part of Spain. Melon seeds were brought in by the Arabs who settled in Andalusia. From there they were introduced to the New World on Columbus’ second voyage in 1493 to Haiti.
The Native American’s of Central and South America were delighted to discover a new fruit and eagerly adopted cantaloupes into their cultivated gardens.
Sometime during the 16th century, melon seeds from Armenia were planted in the Papal gardens of Cantalupo, Italy.
The cantaloupes that were first grown in the United States were actually muskmelons, named for the musky odor when ripe that were first commercially grown in Colorado in 1895. Our familiar muskmelon was developed by the W. Atlee Burpee Company in 1881. Because of its very netted rind, the melon earned the variety name of Netted Gem.
Both muskmelons and cantaloupes belong to the Cucurbitaceae family. The genus and species of both these melons are Cucumis melo. They differ in the variety name. The true cantaloupe genus, species and variety is Cucumis melo, variety cantaloupensis. The muskmelon genus, species and variety is Cucumis melo, variety reticulatus, which includes the Galia, Persian and Charentais melons.
Muskmelons that are large and have deep sutures are called “Eastern” muskmelons and ones that are smaller with netting and are without sutures are called “Western” muskmelons.
The genus and species of watermelon is Citrullus lanatus. North America was introduced to watermelons by Spanish explorers who brought them to the Caribbean, Florida and later the Southwest. French trappers introduced them to Canada and the Mississippi Valley and by the 16th century, Native Americans were cultivating watermelons. They were grown in Massachusetts as early as 1629.
Large watermelons are popular but newer smaller icebox types are gaining popularity. Seedless watermelons are very popular. In order to get a seedless watermelon produced, a diploid (2X) is crossed with a tetraploid (4X) to get a highly sterile hybrid triploid (3X) watermelon.
Hybrid triploid watermelons do not produce sufficient pollen for normal pollination. For commercial production, a normal seeded variety must be planted as a pollinator next to the seedless variety to supply the necessary pollen. It’s best to use a pollinator that has a rind color distinctly different from the seedless type so that you can distinguish the seeded from the seedless variety at maturity.
The Squash Family
Squashes generally refer to four species native to Mexico and Central America. In North America, squash is loosely grouped into summer squash or winter squash. Gourds are from the same family as squashes.
The small, quick-growing forms that are harvested while immature and eaten before the rinds and seeds begin to harden belong to the species C. pepo.
Summer squash varieties are properly harvested while immature, before either the seeds or the rinds have become firm or tough. It requires only four to six days after bloom for a fruit to reach harvest stage. Also, there will be many male flowers that will open and die before the first female flower is seen.
Summer squashes, including zucchini, pattypan, yellow crookneck and yellow straightneck are harvested during the growing season.
The culture and use of summer squashes has been well known in Europe from the beginnings of colonial times.
Winter squashes, such as butternut, Hubbard, buttercup, ambercup, acorn, spaghetti squash and pumpkin, are harvested at maturity, cured to further harden the skin and stored in a cool place. They generally require longer cooking time than summer squashes. The squash fruit is classified as a pepo by botanists, which is a special type of berry with a thick outer wall or rind formed from hypanthium tissue fused to the exocarp; the fleshy interior is composed of mesocarp and endocarp. The pepo, derived from an inferior ovary, is characteristic of the squash family.
All three species of squashes and pumpkins are native to the Western Hemisphere:
- maxima, represented by such varieties as Hubbard squash, Boston Marrow and Turks Turban, apparently originated in northern Argentina near the Andes at the time of the Spanish conquest.
- moschata, represented by such varieties as butternut squash and large cheese pumpkins are native to Mexico and Central America, as well as C. pepo.
Pumpkins belong to C. pepo, but large, late, smooth, symmetrical forms of C. maxima and C. moschata are sometimes called “pumpkins” regardless of species.
The largest “pumpkins” grown are often C. maxima and the canned pumpkin we eat is made from C. maxima squash, which is a winter squash.
Some of the above information was adapted from “Our Vegetable Travelers” by Victor Boswell, Former USDA Horticulturist, National Geographic Magazine, August, 1949 and Fruit and Vegetable Facts and Pointers, United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, Washington, D.C.