Botany Basics: Pumpkin, Squash, or Gourd

‘Tis the season for all things pumpkin-y; and not just in baked goods, though those are delicious. Porches, store-fronts, and even parks are all decorated with pumpkins, squash, and gourds at this time of year. And it begs the question: what is a pumpkin and how is it different from a squash or gourd? (Or maybe only I wonder about these things?)

Photo of grouping of fall mums, ornamental grass, and pumpkins.

Pumpkins and mums, a classic fall decorating combination.

Let’s start with the similarities: all of them – squashes, gourds, and pumpkins – belong to the Cucurbitaceae (aka Cucurbit) family, which also includes your cucumbers, melons, and even your loofah sponge. The Cucurbit family includes between 95-100 genera (those darn taxonomists are always changing things around, so different sources cite different numbers) and between 700-1000 species. Regardless of which number you believe, it’s a lot.

The pumpkins, gourds, and squashes all belong to the genus Cucurbita, so you’ll see scientific names such as Cucurbita pepo (pie pumpkins, acorn squash, miniature pumpkins, some ornamental gourds) or Cucurbita maxima (larger decorative pumpkins, banana squash, hubbard squash). You might look at that list and wonder how a pie pumpkin and an acorn squash can have the same scientific name, and that is because they are different cultivars or varieties…but botanical naming conventions sounds like a good topic for another post.

A lovely grouping of gourds. Or maybe just squashes?

Because this is a “botany basics” post on pumpkins, squash, and gourds – and not on botanical naming conventions – let’s get right down to some botanical definitions. First things first:  we’re throwing out the term “pumpkin”, because, it turns out, a pumpkin is really just a squash. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we can divide the squashes into two groups:

  • Summer (or tender) squash: these are soft-skinned (you can easily pierce it with your finger nail), mature in the summer, and don’t store well without refrigeration. These are your zucchinis, crooknecks, etc.
  • Winter (or hard-skinned) squash: these are later maturing, hard-skinned, and store much longer. These include your pumpkins, hubbards, banana, acorn, and butternut squashes, etc.

A gourd could technically fall under the “winter squash” label, but is set apart because it is grown specifically for ornament or storage rather than for eating.

Whether you call it a pumpkin, a squash, or a gourd, I hope you are enjoying them both on your porch and in your muffins.


Do you have a favorite member of the Cucurbit family? Tell me about it in the comments below.


  1. I’ve been enjoying my Hubbard squash. It’s not easy to pare down to eating size parcels, but it’s definatly worth the effort!

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