Fall is decorative squash season. It is also decorative gourd season. Those two sentences are not redundant.
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.
While most of us lump gourds, squash, and pumpkins into one lumpy, bumpy, hard-to-peel family, they aren’t exactly the same. 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 a squash and also a gourd.
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Complicating the matter even more is 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 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, and 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, here’s one more fun fact: Pumpkins are squash and also gourds, and also… fruit. At least according to the Farmer’s Almanac, all of those edible, seed-filled squash and gourds are fruit.
Got that? Me neither. 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. 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.