Members of the Cucurbitacea family are hard to beat for color and interesting shapes.

Varieties of Decorative Squash

by Deborah Stephenson

Though gourds are commonly distinguished from squashes and pumpkins in everyday parlance as purely decorative objects, and the latter two as edibles, the truth is that all belong to the same large family, Cucurbitacea, and the name matters little in determining whether a particular species is decorative, edible or both. Many ornamental “squashes” are inedible, while many “gourds” are foodstuff all over the world. Therefore, for the widest selection of beautiful colors and interesting shapes, choose your favorites from among the many eye-catching Cucurbitacea of all genera and species, without worrying whether they are called squashes, melons, pumpkins or gourds.

1. The Cucurbitacea Family

There are 126 plant genera in the family Cucurbitaceae. Among those most commonly known in this country are the so-called “ornamental” gourds, and the many squash species of cucurbita -- such as pumpkin and zucchini (both Cucurbita pepo), butternut and acorn (C. maxima) and hubbard squashes (C. mixta). Most of the species in the genera Lagenaria and Luffa (or Loofah) are also edible when young and green, but while dry luffas are useful as plant sponges, they are not generally considered decorative. Watermelons (Citrullus lanatus) and cucumbers (Cucumis sativas) are also Cucurbitacea -- but not usually employed whole, as decorations.

2. Cucurbita maxima for Color

Cucurbita maxima, while containing many varieties with unusual shapes, are primarily decorative in color. "Shenot Crown of Thorns" and "Turks Turban" are two common varieties of decorative squash encountered seasonally in grocery stores. Both are brilliant mixtures of oranges, yellows and creams with green stripes and swirls -- just right for combining with pumpkins (C. pepo) and "Indian corn" (Zea mays indurata) for fall decorations.

3. Cucurbita pepo for Unusual Features

Cucurbita pepo come in many unusual forms and colors to add a touch of unconventionality to any decorative display. Among them, perhaps the oddest is “Yugoslavian Fingers” -- a strange fruit with numerous white, cartoon-like fingers. Equally interesting is “Daisy”, which looks for all the world like a plump version of its namesake, displaying “flower petals” on the stem end in a wide spectrum of earthy colors. The “Orange Warted” squash looks like an orange covered all over with warts, while the diminutive white pumpkin “Baby Boo” is a ghostly beauty especially prized for Halloween decorations.

4. Lagenaria siceraria for Interesting Shapes

“Caveman’s club," “Dolphin” (also called maranka), “Corsican flat” -- commonly known as “Canteen gourd” for its disk-like shape, and the various swan gourds are only a few of this widely-varied genus in the Cucurbitacea family. Despite the almost endless differences in color, size and shape, all are varieties of Lagenaria siceraria and usually referred to as gourds. Others in this group, include “Big Apple," which can be painted to resemble a large, real apple, along with its ugly sisters the “Blistered Gourd” and “Bule;” “Calabash” squash; and both the “Indian Serpent” and “Snake” gourds, which resemble fat serpents.

5. Lagenaria siceraria for Utility and Beauty

Though primarily used in utilitarian ways for storing food or other items, carrying water or making birdhouses, these varieties of Lagenaria are often highly decorative as well. Many of the basket gourds in particular are transformed into beautiful works of fine art by skilled artists. This group includes the bottle gourds, small and large dipper gourds, basket gourds, and birdhouse gourds.

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