The melon family, a family of plants comprising about 120 genera and 760 species, occurring mainly in warm climates, and consisting principally of herbaceous plants with juicy stems, often climbing by tendrils that arise near the bases of the leaf stalks. Many plants in this family are cultivated for their fruits; the flowers of many species are also edible.
The leaves are usually palmately veined and often lobed. Male and female flowers are separate, on the same or on different plants; they usually have five sepals and five yellow or whitish petals. The five stamens are variously joined together; the ovary is inferior and usually of three fused carpels.
The fruits are juicy when young, and sometimes remain so on ripening, as in the white bryony Bryonia dioica. In the squirting cucumber Ecballium elaterium, the fruit pulp and the seeds are held under pressure by the elastic fruit wall, and are shot out to a distance of several metres through the base of the fruit when it is detached from the stalk. The name ‘squash’ is given to large fleshy fruits of this family, especially those in the genus Cucurbita, and those with a leathery rind. Species with fruits that harden on ripening are generally called gourds.
Uses The hard shell of the calabash cucumber or bottle gourd Lagenaria vulgaris is made into cups, basins, and other utensils; the woody veins in the fruit of Luffa cylindrica form the loofah sponge. The tropical bitter apple Citrullus colocynthis yields a purgative, colocynth, from the fruit pulp; other species of Citrullus, Momordica, Cucumis, and Cucurbita supply vegetables and edible fruits. The balsam apple Momordica balsamina and the balsam pear M. charantia, occur in the tropics; Citrullus vulgaris, the watermelon, is an important crop in the southern USA. The large oval fruits may reach 60 cm/2 ft in length; their smooth green rind encloses sweet, rosy red flesh with black seeds in the centre.
The melons and musk melons come from varieties of Cucumis melo. These fruits are often ribbed on the outside. The rind may be yellow (like the honeydew melon) or green, the flesh white or orange; small forms with orange flesh are called cantaloupes.
The cucumberC. sativus is very rare in the wild, but is cultivated for its long green fruits, which are eaten in salads when they have reached full size but before the seeds have begun to harden. Pickling cucumbers or gherkins are small varieties, often with a slightly hairy rind. Cucurbita species are generally hardier than Citrullus and Cucumis, and can be grown outdoors in temperate regions if protected from spring frosts.
The vegetable marrowCucurbita pepo has elongate varieties which are green, yellow, or variegated in colour. Small forms, gathered young, are courgettes. Round-fruited varieties of C. pepo are small pumpkins; the orange giant pumpkin C. maxima, can weigh up to 50 kg.
Cultivation The general needs for culture of the Cucurbitaceae are a warm sunny position with light but richly manured soil, liberally watered in dry weather. Artificial pollination with a small brush is often desirable; for the best fruits, flowers should be pinched out until the plants are thoroughly established.
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