There’s more to the cucumber family than cucumbers

Richard Bogren, Gill, Daniel J.  |  3/30/2009 9:04:36 PM

For Release On Or After 04/10/09

By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist

Some the most popular vegetables planted in Louisiana home vegetable gardens belong to the cucumber family, or Cucurbitaceae. Members of that family that can be planted this month include summer squash, winter squash, mirliton, pumpkin, gourd, cucuzzi, watermelon, cantaloupe, cushaw, luffa and, of course, cucumber.

All of these vegetables produce vines that climb or run along the ground. Summer-squash vines are rather short and thick and are more bush-like than other members of the family.

Members of the cucumber family produce separate male and female flowers, but both types of flowers occur on the same plant. Still, pollen must be transferred from the male flowers to the female flowers to obtain fruit set. Pollen transfer is done by bees and other insects, so it is extremely important not to spray insecticides in the morning when bees are most active. Wait until late afternoon or early evening if insecticides must be used.

Although male flowers are needed for pollination, only the female flowers actually develop into fruit. Cucumbers, for instance, produce enormous numbers of male flowers compared to female flowers. I have talked to many a gardener that thought they were about to see a bumper crop of cucumbers only to watch in stunned disappointment as most of the flowers fell off without making fruit.

To distinguish the male flowers from the female flowers, it’s necessary to look at them closely. The showy part of the flower is often very similar; it’s behind the flower where the differences can be observed. The female flower is connected to the plant by an ovary that looks like a miniature of the fruit that will eventually form. The female flower of a cucumber, for instance, is connected to the vine by what looks like a tiny cucumber, and the ovary of a female squash flower looks like a tiny squash. These ovaries will only develop into fruit, however, if the flower is pollinated.

Squash are among the most popular and productive warm-season vegetables. Most families need to plant only a few plants to supply themselves with an abundance of squash, and now is an excellent time to plants seeds or transplants into the garden. The short-vine, bushy summer squash plants are rather large (24 to 36 inches across) but will fit into most home gardens. The fruit is harvested immature while it is young and tender. Commonly grown types of summer squashes are yellow crookneck, yellow straightneck, zucchini, scallop and cocozelle.

Winter squash usually have a more vining growth habit and need more room than summer squash to grow. Their fruit is allowed to remain on the vine until fully matured when the rind is hard. The name winter squash does not refer to when they are grown but rather that the fruits store well and may be consumed during the winter. Types of winter squash locally grown include butternut, acorn, Turk’s turban and hubbard.

Cucumbers are an easy vegetable to grow. Plant seeds or transplants into your garden now. If you buy transplants, more than one plant is often in the pot. Pinch off all but the largest one before planting. Most gardeners allow cucumber vines to grow along the ground, but I highly recommend that you trellis them. Provide a sturdy trellis 3 to 4 feet tall and space plants along the base 6 inches apart. Tests conducted at LSU AgCenter research stations show substantial yield increases for trellised cucumbers as well as fewer disease problems and better-quality cucumbers.

Delicious to eat, the cantaloupe is a more challenging member of the group to grow. Production is generally not a problem, but the quality of the melon is often disappointing, with a general lack of sweetness the most common complaint. Make sure the vines are planted into well-prepared beds with generous amounts of added organic matter. Fertilize them lightly when the vines begin to run and water regularly if the weather is dry (although dry weather as the fruit ripens enhances sweetness, so water less when there are ripening fruit on the vines).

When a melon is ready for harvest, it will develop a strong aroma of cantaloupe, and the stem connecting it to the vine will easily pull away from the melon, leaving a clean, concave scar. Growing cantaloupes on trellises saves room, and the vines are surprisingly capable of holding the heavy fruit. If the vines are trellised, place a thick layer of pine straw under the vines as a cushion – when the fruit are ripe they will fall onto the pine straw.

One of my favorites of the Cucurbitaceae family is the luffa gourd. This vine does triple duty in the garden. It is attractive enough to be used as an ornamental with dark green leaves that stay healthy all summer and large, bright yellow male flowers. The fruit is edible when 6 to 8 inches long and can be sliced, breaded and fried like okra. Indeed, two traditional names for this gourd – climbing okra and Chinese okra – refer to its similarity to okra in flavor when fried. When the gourds are mature and the skin turns brown, peel away the skin to reveal the most remarkable aspect of this plant – a tough network of fibers that make an excellent sponge. Beautiful flowers, something to eat and a sponge to clean up with – what more could you ask for?

 

Rick Bogren

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