Cucurbitales - Order
Vine Crops - Cucumbers, Squash, Gourds & Melons
To the botanist, these large families are all "Cucumbers"
(Cucurbits or Cucurbitaceae), so that 700 pound pumpkin you saw
last Halloween is actually just a cucumber. To the Agriculturist they
are all "vine crops". They all do have pretty much the same structure,
both plant and fruit (with minor exceptions). Squash are New World
versions while Cucumbers, Gourds and Melons were known from Africa to
Japan for thousands of years, but in the Americas only since about 1500.
Why should we care what's a Cucumber, Winter Squash, Summer Squash, Pumpkin, Gourd or Melon? Which is which in culinary terms is not always clear, but if you know what they are you know a lot about how they will cook. Gourds, for instance, may look a lot like summer squash, but they cook quite differently. It's also important if you're trying to use the right thing for an ethnic dish.
The big container gourds the American Southwest is famous for are
actually Old World (Cucurbit Lagenaria) gourds brought by the Spanish
(there is a possibility some crossed the Atlantic to South America before
the Spanish). Again, Thanksgiving decorative "gourds" are actually dried
New World C. pepo squash, and Calabash "gourds" aren't gourds either,
they're the fruit of a tree related to begonias.
Varieties and Detail.
Begonias - [genus Begonia of family Begoniaceae]
Yes, begonias are related to cucumbers. Not all begonias are edible, and some are edible in different ways. Those most commonly considered edible are the tuberous begonias (as in the photo) Begonia x tuberhybrida and the Wax Begonia Begonia cucullata which has escaped and is growing wild in Florida. Of course, you must be certain your begonias have not been exposed to insecticides or herbicides. Leaves and flowers of these two are edible, and petals are often used to decorate fancy salads. Flavor varies somewhat with color.
Begonia leaves have been cooked as vegetables from India through China
and Japan, and throughout Southeast Asia including Philippines,
particularly in soups and sauces. They are also used similarly in Brazil
and Mexico. Leaves are also sometimes used in salads. Note that begonia
leaves contain a significant amount of oxalic acid, the substance that
makes spinach tart, and they may have a slight bitter aftertaste.
Photo by Darorcilmir distributed under license
Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0 Unported.
Karaka - [New Zealand Laurel; Corynocarpus laevigatus of family Corynocarpaceae]
This leafy tree, native to New Zealand, grows to about 32 feet high.
It produces orange fruit that was important to the native Maori. The
flesh is edible but somewhat bitter. The seed kernels are highly toxic.
Reports from the 19th century say the Maori had a complex multi-day
process to detoxify the kernels. This process had to be carried out
carefully and completely. The result of not doing so would be violent
convulsions and muscle spasms so severe they could leave the limbs
permanently stuck in unusual positions, though death was only
occasional. Personally, I don't think I'll try these.
Photo by Kahuroa contributed to the Public Domain.