Picture it: You’re at the U-pick farm, ready to fill your wicker basket with red apples, plump pumpkins, fresh fruit butter, and a few stalks of heirloom corn. You come to a signpost stuck in the dirt path among a pile of hay bales. One arrow points, “Gourds this way,” and the other points, “Squash this way.” Wait a minute! What’s the difference between gourds and squash? Can gourds be eaten? Great questions. Read on to find out!
OK, so you’re not likely to actually come to a signpost telling you that one direction leads to gourds and another leads to squash. But during the fall season, you’re definitely likely to come across the different terms being used in different context: A farm stand advertising local gourds, a recipe for roasted squash, a DIY craft article calling for gourds—AH! What are they talking about?! As a geek for all things autumn and a trained chef, I found myself wondering this same question recently, and being a bit embarrassed that I didn’t know the answer to the question: Can gourds be eaten?
I dug around through various botanical garden and horticulture extension websites and eventually found the answer—and it turns out to be very simple.
What’s In a Name? Exploring Cucurbitaceae
The most concise explanation came from the site of the Missouri Botanical Garden, where experts explain the genetic differences between squash, gourds, and pumpkins. They are, in fact, all members of the enormous plant family called Cucurbitaceae, which contains a multitude of different species within it. In the Cucurbitaceae family you’ll find the usual suspects—zucchini, pattypan squash, acorn squash, spaghetti squash, butternut squash, and pumpkins—but there’s a whole slew of other species (over 700 in total!) that are also all in that family’s umbrella.
Can Gourds Be Eaten?
The difference, as the Missouri Botanical Garden explains, comes from the leaves, stems, seeds, and fruit of each plant–but we mostly recognize those differences by how we use the plants. Typically, the edible plants under this family are referred to as squash, and the ornamental (i.e. hard-shelled, inedible, and generally un-tasty) plants are referred to as gourds. Buy a gourd to use as a cute decoration in the house, or buy a squash to use in a seasonal fall recipe. And any squash that’s round and orange is likely to be coined a pumpkin.
So, Which to Pick?
So how do you know which you should be buying to eat, and which to decorate when you go pumpkin picking this season? Don’t worry, no one’s going to ask you if you want to take home a Cucurbita moschata, a Cucurbita pepo, or a Cucurbita maxima. Just look for those simple, generic terms: gourd for ornament, squash for cooking, and pumpkin for cooking or carving.
For more information on the wonderful world of botanics, check out the Missouri Botanical Garden website. It’s got some great pages on sustainability, gardening, and conservation.
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