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Riled Up is a journal of science, the environment, exploration, new technology, and related commentary.  Contributors include scientists, explorers, engineers, and others who provide perspectives and context not typically offered in general news circulation.  For interested readers, additional resources are included.

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Pumpkins, Gourds, & Watermelons
Hugh Bollinger

Pumpkins, Gourds, & Watermelons

Ancient long-neck gourd from Crete (credit: SWP Media)


Probably no other plant better connotes Autumn than do pumpkins whether for Halloween Jack-O-Lanters or tasty baked pies. Likewise, juicy watermelons are a treat all summer long. These vining plants are both members of the Cucurbit family that also includes gourds. However, while gourds are woody and not eaten they are often decorated and used as traditional musical instruments. These annual plants have been grown and utilized for thousands of years and improvements continue today from the ongoing efforts of plant breeders.

The University of New Hampshire has one of the longest running cucurbit breeding programs in the US focusing on cucumbers, pumpkins, melons, and squash. Likewise, the USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) has conducted long-running programs to develop disease resistant cultivars by using classical plant breeding and now modern molecular genetics. The Agency is active in helping consumers learn about the new varieties and sponsors a National Watermelon Day each year in August to showcase the latest releases.

     Carved pumpkins, Keane NH (credit: Wikipedia)              National Watermelon Day (credit USDA/ARS)

But modern plant breeding aside, a visit to the island of Crete, home of the ancient Minoans who lived nearly a thousand years before the Greeks became famous in Homer's Iliad and the Odyssey, shows just how long 'heirloom plants' have been cultivated. On this large island in the Mediterranean, Long-neck grouds have been in annual cultivation since the Minoan civilization obtained seeds. These ancient traders with their fast sailing vessels established trading routes with people in Africa where this wild gourd was grown. African herders used the dried long-neck gourds as their portable water bottles not unlike those sold in our supermarkets today.

  Painted Long-neck gourd, Crete (credit: Visit Greece)

Not to be forgotten in this history of Cucurbit cultivation are the 'monster pumpkins' present-day plant breeders have been developing into ever larger and larger creations. The winner monster of one event in Pennselvania weighed-in at over a ton and was dropped from 130 feet high at the end of the fest to great applause. Giant pumpkin festivals now happen not only in states from Iowa, to California and Georgia but also as far away as Germany and New Zealand. Giant pumpkins have become a passion, and perhaps a craze, for some enthusiasts as well.

Consider purchasing some pumpkin, gourd, or melon seed packets from a supplier and see what sort of giant fruit you might someday create. If that does not sound good, enjoy some juicy melon slices with fresh lime juice or a big piece of pumpkin pie with vanilla ice cream instead. WHB

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