Cucurbitaceae (Vine Crops)


The Cucurbitaceae or vine crop family is a distinct family without any close relatives and includes many important vegetables such as cucumber, melon, watermelon, squash, pumpkin and gourds. Plants within Cucurbitaceae consist of 95 genera classified into 15 tribes. Cucurbits are trailing or vining tendrilā€bearing annual plants. The plants are mostly monoecious with separate male and female flowers and require various insect, especially bees for pollination. The fruit come in various shapes and sizes, of which the pumpkin plants produce some of the largest known fruits among flowering plants and are often used in contests. Gourd fruits are used for preparing food, making musical instruments, containers and other decorative pieces. Watermelon is considered the most popular among the cucurbits whose delicious fruit are widely consumed throughout the world.

Key Concepts

  • Cucumber, watermelon, melon, pumpkin, squash and gourds belong to the family Cucurbitaceae.
  • Cucurbits are mainly trailing or vining tendrilā€bearing annual plants.
  • Cucurbit plants are mostly monoecious, that is, they have separate male and female flowers.
  • Pumpkin plants produce some of the largest know fruits among flowering plants.
  • Watermelon is the most popular cucurbit and its delicious fruits are consumed worldwide.
  • The red pigment responsible for watermelon flesh colour is an anticancer agent. Watermelon fruit have more lycopene than tomato.
  • Bottle gourds are considered to be some of the earliest domesticated plant species.

Keywords: cucurbits; watermelon; gourds; cucumber; melon; squash

Figure 1. A dendogram showing the ‘phylogenetic relationship’ among cucurbit species. Re‐drawn based on Schaefer H and Renner SS (). The currently known cultivated crops are listed in italics next to the tribes within Cucurbitaceae.
Figure 2. Varied shapes of cucurbit leaves. The three leaf shapes on top panel from left to right belong to melon, tinda and watermelon, respectively. The bottom panel from left to right displays leaves of winter melon, bottle gourd and bitter gourd, respectively.
Figure 3. (a) Watermelon fruit of various shapes and rind colour. (Inset) Male watermelon flower with stamens and pollen on the left compared to a female watermelon flower with a miniature ovary under the flower petals (right). (b) Watermelon fruit with various flesh colours.
Figure 4. An assortment of Cucurbita spp. fruit.
Figure 5. (a) Tender bitter melon fruit in a market. (b) Ripe balsam apple fruit on plants with the seeds exposed.
Figure 6. (a) Mature green and dried fruit of smooth luffa and tender leaves. The dried fruit in centre has some of the outer skin removed to expose the sponge beneath; hence, the fruit is also known as sponge gourd. (b) Luffa ridge gourd and tender leaves. The tender fruit are consumed in parts of Asia.
Figure 7. Tender chayote fruit for sale in a market.
Figure 8. (a) Bottle gourd flowers with white petals that generally open at night. Female flower (left, with stigma) and a miniature ovary under the petals. Male bottle gourd flower on the right. (b) Tender bottle gourd fruit in a market. Fruit are consumed in parts of Asia.


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Decker‐Walters DS, Wilkins‐Ellert M, Chung SM and Staub JE (2004) Discovery and genetic assessment of wild bottle gourd [Lagenaria siceraria (Mol.) Standley; Cucurbitaceae] from Zimbabwe. Economic Botany 58: 501–508.

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Perkins‐Veazie P, Collins JK, Pair SD and Roberts W (2001) Lycopene content differs among red‐fleshed watermelon cultivars. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 81: 983–987.

Schaefer H and Renner SS (2011a) Cucurbitaceae. In: Kubitzki K, (ed). The families and genera of vascular plants. Sapindales, Cucurbitales, Myrtaceae, vol. 10, pp. 112–174. Berlin, Germany: Springer.

Schaefer H and Renner SS (2011b) Phylogenetic relationships in the order Cucurbitales and a new classification of the gourd family (Cucurbitaceae). Taxon 60 (1): 122–138.

Sebastian P, Schaefer H, Telford IR and Renner SS (2010) Phylogenetic relationships among domesticated and wild species of Cucumis (Cucurbitaceae): The sister species of melon is from Australia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 107: 14269–14273.

Wehner TC and Maynard DN (2004) Cucurbitaceae (Vine Crops). Encyclopedia of life sciences, John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Doi: 10.1038/npg.els.0003723

Weng Y and Sun Z (2012) Major cucurbit crops. In: Wang YH, Behera TK and Kole C, (eds). Genetics, Genomics and Breeding of Cucurbits, pp. 1–16. CRC Press, FL: Science Publishers.

Further Reading

Bates DM, Robinson RW and Jeffrey C (eds) (1990) Biology and Utilization of the Cucurbitaceae. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Jeffrey C (1967) Cucurbitaceae. In: Milne‐Redlead E and Polhill RM, (eds). Flora of Tropical East Africa, pp. 47–53. London, UK: Crown Agents.

Maynard DN (ed.) (2001a) Watermelons. Characteristics, Production and Marketing. Alexandria, VA: ASHS Press.

Maynard DN (2001b) An introduction to the watermelon. In: Maynard DN, (ed). Watermelons, Characteristics, Production and Marketing, pp. 9–20. ASHS Horticulture Crop Production Series. Alexandria, VA: ASHS Press.

Maynard D and Maynard DN (2000) Cucumber, melons, and watermelon. In: Kiple KF and Ornelas KC, (eds). The Cambridge World History of Food, vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nayar NM and More TA (eds) (1998) Cucurbits. Enfield, NH: Science Publishers.

Robinson RW and Decker‐Walters DS (1997) Cucurbits. New York, NY: CAB International.

Rubatzky VE and Yamaguchi M (1997) World Vegetables. Principles, Production, and Nutritive Values, 2nd edn. New York: Chapman & Hall.

Tindall HD (1983) Vegetables in the Tropics. London, UK: Macmillan Press.

Whitaker TW and Davis GN (1962) Cucurbits. Botany, Cultivation, and Utilization. New York, NY: Interscience Publishers.

Wang YH, Behera TK, and Kole C (2012) Genetics, Genomics and Breeding of Cucurbits. CRC Press. Taylor & Francis Group.

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Kousik, Chandrasekar S, Levi, Amnon, Wehner, Todd C, and Maynard, Donald N(Jan 2015) Cucurbitaceae (Vine Crops). In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003723.pub2]