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Cucurbitaceae includes some of the most ancient cultivated plants known. Cucurbita and Lagenaria species—squashes, pumpkins, and gourds (used for as utensils and bottles)—originated in Mexico and North or Central America, and were already widely cultivated in North America before the arrival of Europeans. Archaeologists have found evidence of these species in Mexican sites dating from 7,000 BC through 1760 A.D.; they were important to the Inca, Aztec, and Mayan civilizations. Artifacts from cultivation in numerous sites in the southwestern U.S. (Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado), and east to Illinois, show a record of cultivation in North America for the past 2,000 to 3,000 years.
Most species in the genus are trailing or climbing tender herbaceous annuals, although some are perennial, and a few have an upright or bushy form. Stems are hirsute to scabrous (rough, short hairs) or prickly. Leaves are simple and alternate, and often shallowly to deeply lobed, with 3–5 lobes. Climbing species have tendrils, which may be simple or branched. Most species are monoecious, with separate male and female flowers on the same plant, and are pollinated by bees and beetles.
Fruits in the genus, technically called pepos, come in an astonishing range of shapes, sizes, and colors and textures (of both skin and flesh); Cucurbita species may have the greatest diversity of any cultivated species. Fruits may be globose, oblong or elongate, cylindrical, or flattened; some have crooked or elongated necks. They range from the size of a plum to pumpkins weighing over 45 kg (100 pounds). Skin colors vary from white to cream to yellow to orange to green; some cultivars are variegated or striped. The fruit surface may be smooth, scalloped, ridged, or warty.
Different species within the genus have numerous uses as food (including oil from the seeds), fiber, traditional medicinals and animal fodder; see EOL pages for individual species. They are a globally important crop: 2009 world production of all species of pumpkins, squashes, and gourds was 22.1 million tons harvested from 1.7 million hectares, valued at $5.2 billion U.S. dollars. Leading producers were China, Russia, India, the U.S., and Egypt.
Cucurbitaceae includes the record for the world’s largest fruit, a cultivated pumpkin (Cucurbita maxima) from Wisconsin that earned the Guinness World Record for largest pumpkin at a weight of 821.23 kg (1,810 lb 8 oz); see YouTube video. A similar pumpkin was carved into the world’s largest jack-o-lantern at New York Botanical Garden in 2011 (see YouTube clip).
(Bates 1990, FAOSTAT 2011, Guinnessworldrecords.com 2011, NRC 1989, Schultes 1990, Waynesword.com 2011, Whittaker and Davis 1962)