Courgettes: profile, origin & characteristics
Courgettes have long been a favourite of home-growers, which is no surprise, as they are easy to grow and care for and can produce enormous harvests over the growing season. Find out all about courgettes, including whether they are a vegetable or a fruit.
Courgettes (Cucurbita pepo) or zucchini as they are also known, are widely grown here in the UK. Read on to learn all about the humble courgette’s characteristics and origin, as well as what the difference is between male and female flowers. These can be a little tricky to identify until you know how.
Courgette plant: profile
Belonging to the Cucurbitaceae family, courgettes are a type of summer squash (Cucurbita pepo) and characteristically produce yellow flowers before subsequent green fruits. However, newer courgette varieties can now produce more exotic-looking long yellow fruits or even striped or round courgettes. Courgettes either have a bush or trailing growth habit and can grow into giant plants in mere months, covering more than a square metre. They produce great palmate leaves on long, slightly hairy and prickly stems.
After the pollinator-friendly yellow to orange flowers form, courgettes typically produce the familiar green fruits. These are typically harvested when they are immature, around 10 to 15cm long. Though if left on the plant for too long, they can grow much larger, becoming marrows.
Courgette seeds are flat and oval with pointed ends. Courgette plants are typically grown in the ground or in pots, although recent breeding programs have produced some cultivars with longer stems that can be trained upwards and grown vertically, as climbing courgettes.
Male and female flowers on courgettes
Courgette plants are monecious, which simply means that they produce both male and female flowers on the same plant and need to be pollinated by bees, other pollinators or by hand.
From a distance, the male and female flowers appear similar, yet on closer inspection key differences are visible. Male flowers are produced on longer stems with stamens and are the first to be produced. Whereas female flowers display a swelling behind the flower, which is the ovary and tentacle-like stigma.
Where do courgettes come from?
The courgette, or baby marrow as it is sometimes called, is a type of squash that originated in Central and Southern America. Having been discovered by explorers in the 15th century, the squashes were taken back and introduced to Europe. The courgette as we know it was bred centuries later in Italy and named the zucchina, meaning ‘little marrow’. It came to the UK in the second half of the 19th century.
Are courgettes perennial?
A courgette plant’s lifespan from germination through to fruiting is short-lived and lasts less than a year, which means that they are categorised as an annual plant, as opposed to a perennial that comes back year after year. Thus, to grow courgette plants at home, new seeds need to be sown or new plants bought at the beginning of each growing season. You can learn more about growing courgettes from seed in our separate article.
Tip: as with all grow your own crops, courgettes can be susceptible to some pests and diseases, especially the most commonly faced powdery mildew. Check out our expert article to learn more about how to recognise and prevent powdery mildew on courgettes.
Which parts of the courgette plant are edible?
Courgettes not only produce prolific fruits that are widely eaten, but the courgette’s flowers are also edible and even considered a delicacy. In fact, male courgette flowers are so prized that they are harvested by hand and sold in bunches across Europe to be eaten raw, fried, or stuffed and cooked.
However, as with cucumbers (Cucumis sativus), courgettes can on occasion taste bitter due to unusually high levels of cucurbitacin, which not only makes them unpalatable but toxic; So do not eat them if they taste bitter.
Are courgettes vegetables or fruits?
If you are wondering whether a courgette is a fruit or a vegetable, there are cultural and botanical distinctions that need to be considered. Here in the UK, courgettes tend to be considered a vegetable rather than a fruit, as they are low in sugar, used in savoury dishes, and are found in the vegetable section of a supermarket or grocer’s. However, botanically speaking, courgettes are grown as a result of the pollination of their flowers and contain seeds. So, they are classed as a fruit and, moreover, a berry.
If given the right conditions, courgettes can produce prolific fruits all season long. Find out more about how to harvest and store your courgettes in our other article.