Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cucurbitaceae Fun Facts

The plant family Cucurbitaceae has the same root name as the squash genus, Cucurbita, so it is often refered to as the Squash family, even though it includes cucumbers, melons, and watermelons. The melons that most of us plant—canary melons, cantaloupes, and honeydews--are the species Cucumis melo. Cucumbers are the same genus as the melons, but a different species—Cucumis sativa. Watermelons, that I don’t plant because I can’t plant just every sprawling plant that I want to due to lack of space, are in the genus Citrullus.

All of these garden plants grow as vines with coiling tendrils that help them climb, unless a variety is specially bred (and labeled) to not have long vines. These “bush” types are essentially vines with very short internodes (spaces between the leaves ). They (mostly) still have tendrils, but they sprawl in miniature.

Plants in this family also have both male and female flowers—only the female flowers produce fruit, but they need the male flowers to accomplish this task.

All the garden-plants in this family are warm weather lovers, needing full sun, warm days, and plenty of water as the fruits begin to develop, for best production. Also, they do best with a soil pH between 6 and 6.5. (Click on the plant name for more growing information from UGA: cucumbers, melons , watermelons)

It turns out that a couple of native members of the Cucurbitaceae grow in the western U. S., and they are both in the genus Marah. The common name for each includes the word Manroot. These plants are vining and have both male and female flowers, just like the garden members of this family, but these plants include an unusual “extra.” According to this website about the Native Plants of Montara Mountain in California,

“The name "Manroot" comes from the surprisingly large tubers (4 - 8 ft long!) of these plants, which can appear to be a dead body when dug up.”

According to this webpage from a website about the Natural History of Orange County that is sponsored by the University of California at Irvine, one tuber “of unknown age dug at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden stood for many years at the entrance to the Administration Building. It had been transported on a flatbed truck, was several feet in diameter, and weighed 467 pounds.”

Tubers of the Manroot have been used medicinally as a purgative, so they aren't exactly something that you'd want to serve at the supper table. Can you imagine trying to dig giant inedible tubers out of the garden at the end of each season? I am thankful that the garden members of this family are less exuberant than the natives in their production of underground parts.

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