Pick a Plant Day – Crazy Plants in My Garden – Chilacayote (Cucurbita Ficifolia)

It’s light and fluffy blog day!  As I am now a few months into this crazy, scary journey, I thought I would write a few short segments on the strange things I have found growing in my garden, now that I have the time to look.  Hopefully you’ll find a few surprises amongst them and learn a little too!  Thanks go to the guru who has planted many strange things over the years and found, by trial and error, which are the “fittest” for our climate and soil!

Exhibit A: Chilacayote (Cucurbita ficifolia)

Family – Cucurbitaceae – are a plant family, sometimes called the gourd family, consisting of over a hundred genus, the most important of which are (Reference):

  • Cucurbita – squash, pumpkin, zucchini, some gourds
  • Lagenaria – mostly inedible gourds
  • Citrullus – watermelon (Citrullus lanatus)(Citrullus colocynthis) and others
  • Cucumis – cucumber (Cucumis sativus), various melons
  • Luffa – common name also luffa

Genus – Cucurbita – native to and first cultivated in the Andes and Central America. The genus is an important source of human food, beverages, medicine, oil, and traditionally of detergent. There are five domesticated species all of whom can be treated as winter squash because the full-grown fruits can be stored for months.  includes some cultivars that are better used only as summer squash (Reference):

  • Cucurbita argyrosperma,
  • Cucurbita ficifolia, (meaning fig leaf)
  • Cucurbita maxima,
  • Cucurbita moschata, and
  • Cucurbita pepo (the exception – includes some cultivars that are better used only as summer squash).

A rose by many other names: fig-leaf gourd, malabar gourd, Siam/Thai/Asian pumpkin, Thai marrow, shark fin melon, pie melon, calabaza china, cayote, gila, lacayota, seven year melon, chiverre, black-seeded gourd etc, etc, etc

We call it Chilacayote (as in Chill – a- Cah – yo- teh) just because it rolls off the tongue beautifully and it’s reported to have originated Mexico who still use this name (before derivations of the name began as it spread throughout South America and across the globe in the 16th century).

The Chilacayote is a member of the squash family and is described as an annual in temperate climates and a short term perennial in more tropical zones.  We find it to be an annual in our garden in Perth.  Without frost here, a little love and care in placement you might stretch it to perennial, but its ease to grow suggest the question – why would you bother?

It has a single stem with numerous long runners which can reach over 30meters – so plan for only one plant in each location (plant two or three seeds as Murphy’s Law states that if you plant 1 you have a high chance of getting nothing, but if you plant 3 then they’ll all com up!).  In Perth, we’ve found it to be a hardy ground runner like pumpkin, but far easier to grow, with better pest and disease resistance (no powdery mildew, hurray!), and more prolific fruiting (or squash-ing in this case).

They are very easy to grow from seed.  The seeds take 5-7 days to germinate and the plant grows rapidly with low to medium watering (weekly once the plant has got past the seedling stage).  They are happy in moderate to good soil (productivity of plant will be proportional to productivity of soil!) and love full sun – however as with all plants the high-thirties-plus days can take their toll with sunburn.  Sunburn aside, even if the leaves look limp in the heat of the day, chances are they’ll perk up again towards evening – as an aside heaps of plants adjust their leaf formation in the heat of the day to minimise the surface area available for the suns direct strike in an effort to limit evaporation – plant coping mechanism for climate would make a really interesting investigation for the future, especially Australian natives!).  Having said that, they do tend to kill off the leaves closer to the stem as the runners spread farther afield.  We think it’s just redistributing its energy and have not seen the rest of the plant continue this as a sign of distress.  The same cannot be said for damage to the stem which obviously is the plants bottle-neck for nutrition.  As they are not a fan of frosts (no issue here in Perth!), it is recommended that you plant them in spring.

The plant’s root structure consists of a single tap root of up to 2m depth with a network of lateral roots close to the soil surface.  Unlike many other Cucurbits, the Chilacayote can root at each leaf axil (the upper angle between the stem and leaf).  The leaves very much resemble pumpkin as do the flowers which are up to 8cm diameter.  However unlike the other Cucurbits, we have found that the Chilacayote does not cross / hybridise (a fact backed up by the literature).  The flowers we get are yellow (but other varieties can be more orange) and are monoecious (i.e. flowers are either male or female but both can be found on the same plant).  The flowers require insects for pollination.  (Reference) This all means that there is no need for a second plant to ensure productivity, but it also seems that the absence of the second plant does not seem to effect the enthusiasm of the plant or size of the fruit (i.e. little impact of “inbreeding”).  Each plant is capable of producing more than 50 fruit (we get about 15-20 with limited love and the Perth climate) and each contains up to 500 seeds. Days to harvest is quoted as 80-120 days. (Reference)

The outer shell of the Chilacayote is like a watermelon whilst the inside is more like zucchini.  With such a tough outer coating the Chilacayote can be kept for over 2 years and hence their value in arid areas where they provide veggies across the harsher months when nothing grows. Their hard outer shell once hollowed-out can also be a useful container as is the case with many gourds.

We find it sacrilegious to pick them until they are enormous and risking tearing the vine (or structure!) just because of the sheer beauty of the plant and its value as a conversation piece!)…. however this has meant the sacrifice of many pairs of stockings to prevent them breaking the vine which is unable to support the weight.  However, some books say you should pick them when they are apple size and it is suggested that you eat them raw or lightly steamed. The seeds are also able to be eaten like pumpkin seeds. (Reference – Edible and Useful Plants for the Swan Coastal Plain, Vicki Boxell).  Once enormous they have very little flavour, but when treated like a zucchini and sauteed in garlic butter (or as a last minute throw in filler in stews or curries) there are very few complaints.   We have not found the mature specimen to be sweet as many articles suggest – perhaps we should let them get even bigger!  Supposedly they can be used to make alcoholic beverages – I’ll put it on my job list to test this fact…. for the benefit of my readers, of course! The new shoots are great (if a little furry) in salads, with the harvesting of leaves possible from about 6 weeks of age.  The flowers are also eaten and emerge from about 6-8 week mark depending on the plant’s treatment.  However it is the seeds that contain the best source of nutrients being protein rich and containing oil mainly made up of oleic acid.  Otherwise, as can be expected from a white flesh and limited-flavour vege, it contains very limited vitamins or minerals, falling more at the carb end of the vegetable spectrum. (Reference)  Medical research appears to be focused on the use of the plant for the treatment of Diabetes thought due to its hypoglycaemic action which is thought to be linked to its antioxidant properties. (Reference A, Reference B)

For those who like schematics, here is a couple of rippers (Reference):

Parts of the ChilaPhoto of flowers Chila

  1. Stem with leaf and female flower (the upper side of this joint is the axil I mentioned earlier).
  2. Female Flower (front petals removed)
  3. Male Flower (front petals removed)
  4. Fruit (young example – they get more oblong as they get older, see photos below)

As you will see in the following pictures, we’ve run it along the ground, across the top of shade cloth and on pergola type beams around which it can be twisted.  They can also be seen to clamber over nearby trees and any other elevated structure – preferably hanging fruit at either head height or slightly lower in areas where people frequently pass.  The massive leaves provide cooling shade when “trellised”, but the stem formation, distance between these leaves and “non strangling” nature of the tendrils means it can be easily controlled especially when elevated.  Due to the roughness of its skin (fur like spines, but not irritating or capable of sticking-in like “hair prickles” – although the first time you see/touch it you’ll be surprised it is not), in windy conditions, it can act like sandpaper on its host or those adjacent to it.

You can also see that (a) there are a few varieties with different colouring – from green to cream dominant, (b) proof of their desire to have at head height, (c) their size (yes those are normal sized house bricks – this specimen is 4.3kg, 18cm diameter, 30cm long and by no means a giant of its kind! Seed sellers state up to 6kg, African Agricultural departments say 3-8kg), (d) a close up of the young leaf and (e) the seed produced.

1 Chilikyote 5 (Large)   1 chilikyote (Large)Chiliakyote leaf 4 sm   1 Chilikyote 2 (Large)1 Chilikyote 4 (Large) Chiliakyote white 1 sm    Chiliakyote SEED 1 smChiliakyote size sm 21 Chilikyote 3 (Large)  Chiliakyote leaf 1 sm

More fun to come….

Exhibit B: Bergamot

Exhibit C: St Mary’s Thistle

Exhibit D: The Lion’s Tail or Lion’s Ear or Klip Dagger

Exhibit E: The New Guinea Bean

Exhibit F: Wild Passionfruit

Exhibit G: Slipper Gourd

Exhibit H: African Cucumber

Until then, enjoy.


8 thoughts on “Pick a Plant Day – Crazy Plants in My Garden – Chilacayote (Cucurbita Ficifolia)

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