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Cucumis is a genus of vines in the gourd family, Cucurbitaceae. It includes many important food plants, such as cucumber, muskmelon, and kiwano melon. Cucumis sativus, or the cucumber, and Cucumis melo, or muskmelon, are both widely cultivated. The muskmelon, or true melon, has many varieties, including cantaloupe and honeydew.
C. sativus, the cucumber, originated in India, and is now cultivated throughout the world. Many different varieties have also been developed. The cylindrical fruit, usually treated in cuisine as a vegetable, is eaten when green. The fruit becomes yellow when it is ripe, but the mature fruit is considered too sour and bitter. Cucumber is usually eaten raw or pickled, and certain varieties are intended for one or the other use.
C. melo, the melon or muskmelon, is native to Persia and the surrounding areas, and like C. sativus, is now widely cultivated. Varieties of C. melo can be divided into smooth skinned and netted melons. In addition to their fruit, melons may be grown for their scent, their seeds or oil, or their skin, which can be dried and used as a substitute for leather. C. melo varieties vary greatly in both color and flavor.
An interesting Cucumis species is C. metuliferus, the kiwano or horned melon. Native to Africa, C. metuliferus is also grown in Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and California. The fruit is bright orange when ripe and covered in sharp spikes, with a bright green, gelatinous flesh. Its taste has been compared to a combination of cucumber and banana. It is often eaten raw, as a snack, but may also be used in cooking.
C. anguria, or the West Indian gherkin, is another Cucumis species with a spiked fruit. It is native to Africa, but popular in Brazil, where it is used in a meat stew. The flavor of C. anguria is said to be similar to that of the cucumber.
C. humifructus, a southern African species, is commonly called aardvark cucumber or aardvark pumpkin, because it is the only fruit eaten by the aardvark. It is also the only Cucumis species with a fruit that grows underground. Another southern African species with a spiked fruit, C. myriocarpus or paddy melon, has become a weed in California and Australia. Unlike many Cucumis species, C. myriocarpus is toxic. It can kill livestock, and has historically been used by humans as an emetic, to induce vomiting.