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Cucurbitaceae is a family of plants which consists of 118 to 119 genera and 700 to 800 species. Also called the gourd, the pumpkin, or the melon family, every edible species of gourd is found in cucurbitaceae. Species are usually native to tropical climates in South America and Africa and the drier regions of North America and Europe.
Most species in cucurbitaceae have spiraled shoots and alternating lobed leaves. Shoots wrap around objects, serving to help support the growing plants and are the reasons these plants are often considered vine crops. Plants normally have both male and female flowers. The male flowers contain pollen, and the female flowers contain the seeds. Pollination only occurs by outside transport, such as from bees, because pollen has no airborne ability.
Generally fleshy, fruit normally has a tough outer shell. Some seeds may be edible or used for medicinal purposes. Additionally, seeds of many species are winged, meaning they are inside or attached to material that allows them to float for distances. Helicopter maple seeds and dandelion fluff are common examples of winged seeds. In the cucurbitaceae family, one genus's winged seeds, Alsomitra, actually helped to inspire wing designs in early aircraft.
There are two subfamilies in cucurbitaceae: zanonioideae and cucurbitoideae. Although cucurbitoideae is the larger subfamily, zanonioideae contains all of the winged-seed species. Cucurbitoideae, however, contains the plants used for crops.
Crop plants in this family have been economically valuable for thousands of years. Seeds from several species have been found which are estimated to be 8,000 years old. These plants are thought to be some of the earliest planted for cultivation both in America and in Europe.
Growing seasons differ between species. For example, in areas where it is not warm year round, like the Midwestern United States, watermelons, Citrullus lanatus, are grown for the first few months in greenhouses before being transplanted to fields where they continue growing for an additional three months until finally ready for harvesting. Conversely, cucumbers, Cucurbita sativus, particularly those used for pickling, have a growing season of only six weeks, and are often harvested more than once a week on large cucumber farms.
In addition to watermelons and cucumbers, squash, melons like cantaloupe, and pumpkins are vegetable crops that are present in this family. Not all species are used as vegetables, however. Some species like the bottle gourd, Lagenaria metuliferus, and the Africa horned cucumber, Cucumis metuliferus, are used for ornamental purposes. Bottle gourds are also used for containers and as resonators for musical instruments. Additionally, there are a few species which are considered weeds, such as Coccinia grandis or ivy gourd.