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Cucurbit Biodiversity I:  Cucumbers, Melons, and Gourds

‘Cucurbits’ refer to plants within the Cucurbitaceae, a family of 960 tropical and subtropical species, most of which are annual vines.  Across the globe human civilizations have independently domesticated various species within this group, which now makes up one of the most diverse crop and garden plant assemblages.  For this entry, we’ll focus on four species domesticated in Africa and southern Eurasia:  cucumbers (Cucumis sativus), melons (Cucumis melo), watermelons (Citrullus lanatus), and bottle gourds (Lagenaria sicereria) as well as a few other closely related species.


Cucumbers were initially domesticated at least 5000 years ago in the Himalayan foothills of northern India and Nepal, where it was spread through trade east into China and west across Turkey into Greece and Rome, and then across Europe.  It and melons were such common crops in Sumerian city-states along the Euphrates River around 3500 years ago that they are even mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh

A diverse suite of names have been applied to cucumbers.  In ancient Greece, it was called angoúri, which means ‘unripe’.  This is understandable given that cucumbers are harvested when the fruits are immature.  The Greek name spread across central, eastern, and northern Europe, giving rise to the Russian ‘ogurec’, Hungarian ‘uborka’, Lithuanian ‘agurkas’, German ‘gurke’, and Swedish ‘gurka’.  From this stems ‘gherkin’, the word we currently use for small, usually pickled cucumbers.  The Romans, however, called this crop ‘cucumerem’, giving rise to the Romanian ‘castravete’, Croatian ‘krastavac’, Italian cocomero, Spanish cohombro, and Old French ‘cocombre’.  From this evolved the English ‘cucumber’.

The two main strains are the larger ‘slicing’ cucumbers which have been bred for fresh eating, and ‘pickling’ cucumbers which are shorter in length and more uniform in width.  ‘Armenian’ and ‘snake’ cucumbers, however, are immature melons. 


Melons were domesticated at a very early date from wild ancestors found in tropical savannas ranging from western Africa to southeast Asia, and it is possible that it was independently domesticated in both Africa and Asia.  It was grown over 5000 years ago in both China and Persia, and by 4000 years ago was cultivated in Greece and Egypt. 

The word ‘melon’ is derived from the ancient Greek ‘mēlopepōn’ from ‘mēlon’ (apple) and ‘pepōn’ (ripe).  This alludes to the fact that unlike cucumbers, melons are harvested after ripening.  This word evolved into the Latin ‘melopeponem’, and then into the Old French ‘melon’.

Six major groups of melons have been domesticated:

  • Cantaloupes (named after Cantalupo, the former papal country residence near Rome), muskmelons, and Persian melons belong to the Cantalupensis Group.  Their fruits are oval or round, smooth or broadly scalloped, with a skin ranging from netted through smooth.  They slip off their stem when mature.  Their flesh is aromatic, and is salmon/orange or green colored. 
  • Crenshaw and honeydew melons belong to the Inodorus Group.  Their fruits are round or irregular, smooth or wrinkled, with smooth skin.  They do not slip from their stalks when mature.  Their flesh is not aromatic and is generally green to white colored.
  • Snake melons, Armenian ‘cucumbers’ and the Italian carosello are in the Flexuosus Group.  Their fruits are long, thin, ribbed, often curled, and look much like a cucumber.  Like cucumbers these tend to be harvested and eaten when immature. 
  • Oriental picking melons make up the Conomon Group.  Their fruits are smooth, cylindrical, and may be green, white, or striped. They have a sweet to bland taste with white flesh. 
  • Queen Anne’s and Pocket melons, mango melons, and pomegranate melons belong to the Dudaim Group.  Their fruits are small, round to oval, with a smooth skin that is light green, yellow, or striped. While their flesh is rather hard and insipid, they are grown for their very aromatic smell. 
  • Phoot and snap melons of India make up the Mormordica Group.  Their fruits are oval or cylindrical with a smooth skin that cracks open as the fruit matures.  They have a bland flesh and tend to be used in the same way as cucumbers.  


Watermelons were domesticated from wild plants in sub-Saharan tropical savannas, and in the 12th Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt they were so important a crop that their seeds are found in burial tombs.  The crop was traded east into China, where it was in cultivation 1000 years ago, and was introduced by the Moors into Europe during the 13th Century.  It was subsequently moved to the New World by Spanish explorers, where it became an important crop for the indigenous peoples of the desert southwest, and by African slaves who introduced this crop to the plantations of the south.

There are three principle forms of this crop.  Besides the typical watermelon with its red to pink to orange to yellow sweet, juicy flesh, there is also the ‘citron’, which has hard, white flesh that is not eaten raw.  Rather, it is made into pies, pickled (it was the progenitor of watermelon rind pickle), and is used to make preserves where its high pectin content helps to solidify jellies and jams.  Lastly, the seeds of wild watermelon (as well as other cucurbits) are called ‘egusi’ and are an important oil and protein-rich staple across tropical Africa. 

Bottle Gourds

The bottle gourd is perhaps the first plant domesticated by humans, being selected during the end of the last Ice Age from wild plants living in dry tropical savannas in southern Africa.  The principle impetus for domestication was not for food, but rather as containers allowing storage and movement of water.  Because of its utility, this plant rapidly spread across the cultures of Eurasia, and was brought to North America by 10,000 years ago via migrants crossing the Bering Land Bridge. 

Food uses of this plant perhaps began with consumption of its oil and protein-rich seeds; currently in Central America a version of the drink horchata is made from the roasted and ground seeds.   The shoots, tendrils, and leaves are also consumed as a green vegetable.  But, even more importantly, the tender immature fruits are also edible.  In India, young bottle gourd fruits are used in curries, dals, and chutneys; in China it is used in stir fries and soups; in Japan marinated, re-hydrated gourd strips (called ‘kanpyō’) are commonly used in rolled sushi.  They were also commonly used in the pre-Columbian European diet.

The name ‘gourd’ springs from the Old French ‘coorde’, which was derived from the Latin ‘cucurbita’.  This root evolved into the Italian ‘zucca’, with the young fruit being called ‘zucchini’.  In Spain, this vegetable was been known as ‘calabaza’, which is possibly derived from the Arabic ‘qar'a yabisa’ and Persian ‘kharabuz’ for ‘dry gourd’. 

Other cultivated edible African / Eurasian Cucurbits

A number of other species in the family have been domesticated, but remain rather minor crops as compared to the four discussed above.  These include Winter Gourd (Benincasa hispida) of southeast Asia, Horned Melon (Cucumis metuliferus) of Africa, and Bitter Melon (Momordica charantia) of India and southeast Asia.  Of these the latter is of the highest dietary importance, being a commonly used in Indian, Indonesian, Chinese, and Japanese cooking where its immature fruits are used to impart what is seen as a pleasant bitterness to dishes.  The general avoidance of bitter-tasting foods by western Eurasian cultures (bitter greens notwithstanding) has prevented this crop from being commonly grown in the region. 


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