It's that time of year when pumpkins, squash, melons, gourds and cucumbers come into their own. All members of the Cucurbita family of fruits, pumpkins, squash, melons, gourds and cucumbers all grow on flowering vines that spread over a wide area from one central plant.
Believed to have originated in Africa, cucurbitas somehow made their way to the Americas from Asia. Although there are dozens of theories about how cultivated cucurbitas traveled from Africa, to Asia, then to America and onto Europe and other countries in the Western Hemisphere, in fact, some form of pumpkins, melons, squash, gourds and cucumbers are found on all seven continents.
Some historians estimate that the use of gourds as utensils is nearly as old as mankind. Although no one knows for sure if that is true, in fact, carbon dating has proven that as early as 5,000 B.C. Native Americans fashioned drinking vessels and ladles from dried gourds.
Today, the practice of using gourds for crafts is a popular pastime. In fact, there are several national organizations dedicated to maintaining the ancient craft of fashioning gourds into utensils and many hobbyists carve a variety of decorative items from dried gourds.
Gourds come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes including the Old World Lagenaria gourds that the southwest region of the United States is famous for.
Pumpkins were introduced to the Europeans that immigrated to this country in the 1600s by the Native American population.
In addition to using the meat of the pumpkin in a variety of dishes, many Native American tribes also used dried pumpkin rinds to weave mats and other products.
Although all cucurbitas are popular throughout America, in fact it is the pumpkins that outsells all the other members of the family. In 2008, the U.S. pumpkin production totaled $141 million and the total weight of the 2008 pumpkin crop was estimated at 1.1 billion pounds.
Illinois is the top pumpkin producing state in the nation with a yearly crop of about 496 million pounds of the big orange fruits. In fact, between 90 and 95 percent of all the pumpkins sold in the United States originate in Illinois. Ohio, Pennsylvania and California come in second, third and fourth (respectively) in pumpkin production.
Nearly all the pumpkins grown in the United States are used for processing with only a small percentage used for ornamental purposes, such as the making of jack-o-lanterns.
Squash is, in fact, simply a different kind of pumpkin. Squash comes in a number of varieties all of which are edible.
According to some historians, Native American tribes in the northeast grew large numbers of winter squash and harvested not only the fruit but also the flowers for food. Squash was so popular with the Europeans that settled in the Colonies that along with corn and beans, it became a basic staple of the early settler's diet.
Today, acorn squash, summer squash, gooseneck and zucchini. Although popular as an ingredient in Italian dishes, especially when teamed with pasta, zucchini is, in fact, has its roots in the Americas as do all squashes. However, most of the varieties of zucchini that are popular today were hybridized in Italy from the original Native American variety.
Watermelons and cantaloupe are the most popular varieties of melons in this country. Like other cucurbitas, melons grow on vine-like flowering plants and are formed of a thick outside rind and soft internal pulp. Although watermelons are part of the original cucurbitas grown in Africa, it is not known when or how they made their way to the North and South American continents. However, watermelons were being cultivated in China as early as the 10th century A.D. and the work "watermelon" first appears in English dictionaries in 1615.
Today farmers in 44 states grown watermelons with Florida, Texas, California, Georgia and Arizona leading the way.
Cantaloupe, also known as muskmelons because of its earthy sweet smell, is a highly nutritious fruit that is high in vitamins and low in saturated fat and calories. Although at 1.2 million pounds per year, the United States is a major producer of cantaloupe, in fact Turkey is the second worldwide with an average production of 1.7 million pounds, but both countries pale in comparison to the top producer, China with an annual cantaloupe crop that tops 14.3 million pounds annually.
Although there are several other varieties of edible melon, including honeydew, casaba and others, none are as universally popular as watermelon and cantaloupe.
Unlike other cucurbitas, it is believed that cucumbers originated in India more than 3,000 years ago. Like all cucurbitas, cucumbers are 95 percent water and are filled with vitamins and have very few calories. However, unlike other cucurbitas, cucumbers also have a natural moisturizer that is used in a number of skin products. Cucumbers are available year-round at supermarkets because the largest producing countries are in the tropical or semi-tropical regions of the world. Florida is the largest producer of cucumbers in the United States where several crops are grown each year.
All types of pickles are made from cucumbers that have been harvested before reaching full growth.