“How do you tell the difference between a green pumpkin and a gourd?”

Heirloom pumpkin display at our local grocery store. (Photo: Shala Howell)

Heirloom pumpkin display at our local grocery store. (Photo: Shala Howell)

Last week, as I was dashing into our local grocery supply to replenish our perilously low milk supplies, I noticed this heirloom pumpkin display. I took a picture of it to show The Six-Year-Old, because I knew she would never believe that green pumpkins existed if I did not present the proper documentation.

My photograph told The Six-Year-Old everything she wanted to know about green pumpkins, but Daddyo’s mind had a question. “How can you tell the difference between a green pumpkin and a gourd?”

Pumpkins, it turns out, are members of the gourd family. So one way to answer Daddyo’s question (if I wanted to be really irritating about it) would be to say, “You don’t.”

But I know that what Daddyo means by gourd are those nobby hard-sided things that rattle about in Thanksgiving centerpieces across the nation this time of year.

Gourds (Photo: Deviant Art Public Domain Pics)

Gourds (Photo: Deviant Art Public Domain Pics)

Basically, for our family’s purposes, the difference is in the skin. If the skin’s hard, it’s a gourd. If the skin’s soft and smooth, we call it a pumpkin (or squash).

However, I should point out that our family’s classification isn’t at all scientific. Scientifically speaking, pumpkins, squash, and gourds all belong to the cucurbita plant family. They are sorted into subfamilies based on their stem, not their skin.

The bright orange pumpkins with the hard woody stems so popular with the kids for carving jack-o-lanterns and the moms for roasting seeds belong to the cucurbita pepo subgroup. This group includes other fruits* with hard woody stems, like gourds, pattypan summer squash, scallop summer squash, gray and black zucchini, and summer crookneck squash.

Pumpkins with yellowish skin and soft spongy stems belong to the cucurbita maxima subgroup, along with the banana, buttercup, turban, and most other winter squashes.

Pumpkins in the last subgroup, cucurbita moschata, have deeply ridged stems, tan skin, and a long or oblong shape (rather than round). The moschata family also includes the cushaw, winter crookneck, and butternut squash.

So to sum up:

  • Hard woody stem, cucurbita pepo
  • Soft spongy stem, cucurbita maxima 
  • Deeply ridged stem (and tan skin), cucurbita moschata

And there you have it, Daddyo. More than you ever wanted to know about classifying pumpkins, squash, and gourds.

You’re welcome.

*Although we think of them as vegetables, pumpkins and squash are technically fruits, because they contain the seeds of the plant.

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About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book, Did Dinosaurs Have Belly Buttons?, is currently planned for release in 2018. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Ten-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, chatting about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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One Response to “How do you tell the difference between a green pumpkin and a gourd?”

  1. rayworth1973 says:

    I love to grow them, no matter the genus or species, but don’t seem to have much luck here in Las Vegas. Tried giant gourds and just got a lot of vines and not much gourds. Tried pumpkins as well, I think but the plants just shriveled up, even with water.


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