Identifying Types of Pumpkins, Winter Squash and Gourds

*****NOTE: I have updated the published date to get renewed attention and some help. Given the number of hits this article regularly gets, I’ve been aggressively working on a longer article with pictures for as many open-pollinated/heirloom types as I can find. My only problem is that I don’t know how to manage an article of that length/magnitude in a BLOG (it is over 30 pages, and I reduced the font to 10 pt!). SEEKING SUGGESTIONS/IDEAS!

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There are many beautiful varieties of pumpkins and winter squash, but it is hard to keep them all straight. I own some little guidebooks that identify trees and ferns by a series of questions about their features, eventually identifying those plants with considerable accuracy, but there isn’t anything similar for pumpkins and winter squash. You would think that what constitutes a pumpkin or a winter squash would be clearly understood and defined, especially by those who make a living growing and selling them, but that is usually not the case,  and I have found out that information on the web is rife with errors (especially the pictures!). According to The World of Gourds (an extremely informative and accurate site):

Sorting out all the varieties of edible cucurbits with their correct species identification is very difficult, although it is nicely summarized in Hortus Third by L.H. Bailey and E.Z. Bailey, 1976. A more updated summary is given in Cucurbits (Crop Production Science in Horticulture 6) by R.W. Robinson and D.S. Decker-Walters (1997).

For the benefit of those interested in identifying and growing the different species (particularly if you want a variety with seeds suitable for toasting ), I’ve done considerable research and created the following guide to the five species of Cucurbita using the stem and seeds for identification.

Rather than have images for every named variety within each species (a more suitable project for a book) for this article/post I’m using an image of a representative member for each. If you are curious about how many heirloom/open pollinated varieties you could buy (hybrids strictly excluded), go to www.rareseeds.com. They are very accurate, and if they ever organized their squash and pumpkin listings by species (for afficianados like me) with a picture for each, that would make it easier for many people.

One farmer is very passionate about the vegetable and even puts together a “Wall of Squash.” Here’s a link to an article on their site: http://rareseeds.com/blog/heirloom-seeds/learn-more-about-cucurbits-from-illinois-farmer-mac-condill/, but the picture isn’t any bigger there, but it is clearer..

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Cucurbita maxima

DESCRIPTION:

  • These are generally the big pumpkins.
  • Stem – soft and round, with a corky consistency.
  • Seeds – thick, with cream-colored margins and a thin cellophane coating.

MEMBERS INCLUDE: Most mature, hard-rind winter squash, including the Amish Pie Pmupkin, Atlantic Giant Pumpkin, Boston Marrow Squash, Buttercup, Galeux D Eysines, Golden Delicious Squash, Hubbard, Jarrahdale, Jumbo Pink Banana, Queensland Blue, Turban, and Triamble;

 Cucurbita mixta

 C. mixta was once included within C. moschata, but there are some differences that distinguish them, including flesh texture. See below for how to tell them apart.

DESCRIPTION:

  • Stem – hard, hairy, is five angled and flares out slightly at the fruit end.
  • Seed – white or tan with a pale margin and cracks in the seed coat on the flat sides of the seeds. Seeds also have a thin cellophane coating.

MEMBERS INCLUDE: The cushaws, white crookneck pumpkins, Tenesee Sweet Potato Squash, and Pipian from Tuxpan. 

Cucurbita moschata

DESCRIPTION:

  • Stem – hard, hairy and slightly angular, and flares noticeably at the fruit end.
  • Seeds – small, beige and have a darker beige margin.
  • Shape – Many varieties of Cucurbita moschata occur with quite different fruit forms. They may be bell-shaped, a flattened round shaped or have elongated curved or straight necks.

MEMBERS INCLUDE: Butternut squash; Japanese squash (Black Futsu, Kikuza, Shishigatani), Cheese pumpkins, Musquee de Provence, pumpkin, Pennsylvania Dutch Crookneck.

Cucurbita pepo

DESCRIPTION:

  • Stem – hard, woody, and distinctively furrowed with five distinct angles.
  • Seeds – cream colored with a white margin.
  • Its leaves are harsh textured, unlike the soft texture of the other species (you’ll know it just reaching in around the leaves!).
  • Varieties within this group often have bright orange skin.

MEMBERS INCLUDE:

  • Immature, soft-rind summer squash (summer crookneck squash, straightneck squash, zucchini and white bush scallop, vegetable marrow, pattypan summer squash).
  • Mature, hard-rinded squash are Delicata squash, spaghetti squash, acorn squash, hull-less seeded (naked seed) types, pie pumpkins, chayote, loofah sponges and most of the colorful, warty and star-shaped ornamental gourds.

Cucurbita ficifolia

 This is an unusual melon, so it will receive additional attention.

 DESCRIPTION:

  • Unlike the squashes and pumpkins, Chilacayote is a perennial vine that grows best at higher elevations (above 3,000 feet/1000 m) in tropical zones that have heavy rains, but cannot tolerate cold and frost, so in temperate climates it’s an annual. In its native environment a single plant may cover an entire vacant lot. Both the vines and fruit can be used for livestock fodder.
  • Vines have hardy root systems and are resistant to viruses and can produce over 50 fruit.
  • Mature fruit (weighing 11-13 pounds, or 5-6 kg) and can last without decomposing for several years if kept dry after harvest. Because of that quality it was taken on voyages on ships, and used for food for livestock on board.
  • The flesh is white and edible and the immature fruit is eaten cooked, while the mature fruit is sweet. In Asia, it is used effectively to treat diabetes due to its high D-Chiro-Inositol content, and several scientific studies have confirmed its hypoglycemic effect.
  • The seeds, its most nutritional portion, are high in fat and protein.

MEMBERS INCLUDE: There is only one commonly cultivated fruit in this species, called Chilacayote (also known as fig-leaved gourd, Malabar gourd (or squash), Siam pumpkin or pie melon. In Asia it is called “shark fin melon” because the pulp strands are used to make a soup quite similar to shark fin soup.

Keeping Seed Pure

In case seed savers would like to know, cross-pollination between the five cultivated Cucurbita species generally does not occur. However care should be taken if growing C. mixta and C. moschata together as there are some reports of these types crossing, although other sources claim they do not cross.

If multiple varieties from the same species are grown they must either be hand pollinated or separated by at least a quarter of a mile (about 400m) in order to gain seed that will be true to type.

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