Our cucumbers, melons and gourds

Published - December 31, 2022 08:40 pm IST

Cucumbers are indigenous to India.

Cucumbers are indigenous to India. | Photo Credit: The HIndu

One family of plants that humans in all parts of the world are closely associated with are the cucurbitaceae. This diversified family includes watermelons, melons, cucumbers, pumpkins and squashes. Less widely cultivated cucurbits include the bitter, bottle, wax, snake, sponge and ridge gourd. 

Cucurbits are usually hairy climbers, and male and female flowers are separate. Their fruit — which comes in a wide range of colour, flavour, shape and size — are valued as components of healthy diets. They grow well in India’s geo-climate. The sowing season is usually from November to January, with fruits ripening in the summer. 

The extremely wide range of flavours and sizes among the cucurbits, from sweet watermelons to the bitter gourd, are a result of shuffling of the contents of their mosaic-like chromosomes. Thus, a cucumber has seven chromosomes and a melon has 12, even though they belong to the same genus (cucumis).

Unlike the potato, which was globalised only about 450 years ago, cucurbits have been important components of food economies across the globe for thousands of years. Carried by ocean currents and adapted to local conditions, modern genomic technologies are required to decipher their geographic origins.

Cucumbers are indigenous to India. Wild relatives of cucumber are found growing in the foothills of the Himalayas. The Romans brought them to Europe in the 2nd century B.C. 

Wild melons of the desert

In Rajasthan’s Thar Desert, locals grow wild melon varieties with only the water that has come from a meagre monsoon. Those are small fruits that are cooked as vegetables, with little flesh and lots of seeds.

Recent studies have established that the melons we see today in India are a product of two independent domestication events. These have lost the bitterness and the acidity of the wild fruit, and their leaves, seed and fruits are larger. Melons were independently domesticated in Africa, but the African melon is smaller and retains some bitterness in taste. Not surprisingly, melons grown all over the world are of Indian origin.

The influence of varying human tastes, in different regions of the world, is also reflected in the bitter gourd (karela). The more recently (800 years ago) domesticated varieties found in Thailand and neighbouring countries are larger, less bitter, and have a smooth skin that is almost white.

In comparison, the spiny-skinned Indian varieties are smaller, more pungent, and have been bred for much longer.

Nutritional opposites 

Bitter gourds are rich sources of vitamin C and minerals. A daily 100-gram serving will provide all the vitamin C (and half of vitamin A) required by an average-sized person, while contributing only 150 mg of fat. In general, cucurbits are the nutritional opposites of processed foods, which tend to be rich in fats and carbohydrates. With water content of about 85-95%, they are a source of low-calorie bulk. 

Besides being dietary mainstays and of medicinal value, cucurbits have other interesting uses. Loofah or sponge gourd, when dried, is used as a sponge in skin care. Dried bottle gourds (Tamil: surakkai) serve as resonators in musical instruments such as the sarod, sitar and tanpura.

(The article was written in collaboration with Sushil Chandani who works in molecular modelling. sushilchandani@gmail.com)

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