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Squashes and Their Relatives

Cucurbits (Cucurbita species) are a collection of botanically related food crops that includes what are variously called squashes, pumpkins, vegetable marrows, and gourds. Among the first plants used by mankind,1 they have long been among the most widely distributed. Most are extremely versatile, being used as fruits, vegetables, edible seeds, and oilseeds, as well as sources of fodder and fiber.

Traditionally, cucurbits have been particularly important in the Americas. Together with corn and beans, they were a nutritional mainstay of pre-Columbian civilizations such as the Incas, Mayas, and Aztecs. Since Columbus' time, however, they have become popular throughout most of the world. Today, they are eaten by millions of people, but almost nowhere are they major crops. Moreover, for all their value to people, cucurbits are (at least by comparison with the major grain crops) much neglected by scientists.

This is unfortunate, because these plants, which typically are trailing vines with extensive roots and harsh (often prickly) leaves and stems, are well suited to the peasant or individual gardener. They have wide adaptability and are easily cultivated. Their needs are usually satisfied by moderate soil moisture, and once vigorous growth starts, they seldom need weeding. They are little bothered by insect pests or heat. When judged by nutritional yield and labor required per hectare, they are among the most efficient of all crops.

Fruits are the major cucurbit product. Immature fruits are eaten as green vegetables. Mature fruits are boiled or baked and are important sources of starchy and sugary foods. The excellent keeping qualities of the ripe fruits of some species allows them to be stored for months—even years—without special care. And, if cut in strips and dried in the sun or over coals, the flesh of others will also keep for years.

Nutritionally, these fruits are excellent sources of vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, and potassium. They are low in sodium. The young leaves

1 The archeological record indicates that some Cucurbita species entered into agriculture by at least 6000 B.C.

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