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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Have you ever questioned some of the folklore shared among gardeners that gets passed down from one generation to the next? Some of this folklore may make some sense. One example has to do with members of the cucurbit family - squash, melons, pumpkins, and cucumbers. Have you ever heard this gardening tip: "never plant cucumbers next to squash or melons because they will cross-pollinate and the fruit will not taste right"? Although it may sound logical, this is not true for reasons that relate to the process of pollination and fertilization. A review of the lesson on the "birds and the bees" may be helpful in understanding flowering, pollination, and fruit development in cucurbits.

Cucurbits have a flowering habit which is quite unique among vegetable crops. They are "monoecious", which means they produce separate male and female flowers on the same plant. In order for fruit set to occur, pollen from the male flower must be transferred to the female flower. Honeybees are the principal means by which pollen is transferred from the male flower to the female flower. Thus the "bees" part of the lesson.

Since they have a similar flowering habit, bloom about the same time, and are members of the same plant family, it is logical that gardeners might assume that squash, melons, and cucumbers will cross-pollinate. Fortunately, this is not true. The female flowers of each crop can be fertilized only by pollen from male flowers of the same species. Cross-pollination, however, can occur between varieties within a species. Cross-pollination can be seen in the squashes and pumpkins. Summer squash, pumpkins, gourds, and some types of winter squash belong to the same plant species. All species members may cross with one another. Thus, an acorn squash will cross pollinate with a zucchini or a miniature gourd. However, muskmelon and cucumbers belong to different species and will not cross with each other. An example of incompatibility can also be seen in the animal kingdom. Robins cannot mate with a bluebird. (The lesson about the "birds").

When crosses occur between members of the same species, we do not see the effect of the cross the first year. However, if the seeds are saved and planted, the plants will produce fruit that will be different from either of the parents. Once in a while, gardeners will allow a chance seedling to grow in their garden. The fruit that sets on may appear quite unusual. Occasionally one can guess what the parents were by looking at the fruit or remembering what was planted in that area of the garden the previous year. For example, a pumpkin-shaped fruit with greenish bumps on it may suggest a parentage of pumpkin and green-warted gourd.

Gardeners with a small plot need not worry about cross pollination when planting cucurbits in their garden. Poorly flavored melons or cucumbers are usually due to unfavorable soil or weather conditions, not the result of cross-pollination. Let's put this gardening folklore to rest.

I hope you have all learned about the "birds and bees" for today. I really enjoyed dispelling these common myths. If you need any more information about this subject, or any other garden questions, stop into the Cherokee County Extension Office at 209 Centennial, Suite A, or call 712-225-6196.