Is a Pumpkin a Squash or a Gourd?
Fall is decorative squash season. It is also decorative gourd season. Those two sentences are not redundant, or mutually exclusive. And the reason is pumpkins.
According to the Missouri Botanical Garden, squash, gourds, and pumpkins are all part of the Cucurbitaceae family (try and say that five times fast). It's a very large family of fruit (more on that later). If the entire Cucurbitaceae clan got together for a reunion, it would have more than 900 species RSVP-ing for the occasion. The family includes everything from pumpkins to honeydews to spaghetti squash to cucumbers to watermelon to those decorative gourds that start populating tablescapes and porches at this time of year.
Squash or Gourd, What's the Difference?
While most of us lump gourds, squash, and pumpkins into one lumpy, bumpy, hard-to-peel family, they aren't exactly the same. Even though squash and gourds belong to the same family and stem from herbaceous vining plants, they have differing requirements when it comes to planting and harvesting. While squash can be seeded directly in the ground about two weeks after the last frost of the year, gourd seedlings need to be nurtured indoors for about a month prior to planting them outside. Maturation varies as well. Gourds take between 100 to 180 days to reach maturity, but summer squash will mature in around only 45 to 60 days, and winter squash in 80 to 100 days.
In terms of harvesting, summer squash reach their potential when they have grown to be about six to eight inches in length. They should be stored in the refrigerator, as they have high perishability, and taste best when consumed within three days of being harvested. As for winter squash, harvesting normally occurs in the fall after the fruits have a hardened rind and full color. Unlike summer squash, they are not perishable and can be kept for up to six months. Meanwhile, gourds are ready to be picked once their vines have become dry and shriveled up. Squash and gourds also flower differently. Bright orange squash flowers bloom during the day, whereas some gourd flowers bloom in white only at night.
Now, brace yourself because this is about to turn into a botanical "Who's on first?" routine: Not all gourds are squash, but many squashes are gourds and a pumpkin is both a squash and a gourd.
Pumpkins Are Complicated
Complicating the matter even more is the fact that the term "pumpkin" doesn't really mean anything botanically speaking, as they are actually just plain old squash. Squash are divided into two categories: tender or summer squash, and hard-skinned or winter squash. Summer squash includes things like zucchini, pattypan, and, well, summer squash. Winter squash are hard with thick skins that help them last through the long winter. Think of things like butternut, acorn, hubbards, spaghetti, buttercup, and of course pumpkins.
As for gourds, that term includes plants in both the genera Cucurbita (soft-skinned gourds) and Lagenaria (hard-skinned gourds), so a pumpkin is also technically a gourd. If you're not confused enough already, here's one more fun fact: Pumpkins are both squash and gourds, and also… fruit. At least according to the Farmer's Almanac, all of those edible, seed-filled squash and gourds are fruit.
Basically, according to the Missouri Botanical Garden, the main distinction between squashes and gourds is that squashes are grown and harvested to eat, while gourds are usually just for decorative or ornamental purposes. Both summer and winter squash can be baked, boiled, steamed, roasted, pureed, sautéed, or pan-fried to be added to soups, casseroles, hash, desserts, and more. As a bonus, winter squash—while typically mild in flavor—is packed with fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Meanwhile, gourds lack the "fleshy" insides necessary to be flavorful or abundant enough to consume. So if it looks good in your fall cornucopia, it's probably a gourd and if it tastes good at dinner or in a pie, it's probably a squash.
All things considered, pumpkins are a fascinating anomaly and contradiction—a squash, a gourd, a fruit; a food, a decoration, an activity. It breaks the rules by being a flavorful, edible gourd and squash without high perishability. Pumpkins reign as the most recognized and most coveted fall indulgence. From pumpkin patches to pumpkin spice everything to jack-o'-lanterns, pumpkins are the ultimate fall treat. It's really no wonder that pumpkins can be so many things at once.