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biodiversity explorer

the web of life in southern Africa

Family: Cucurbitaceae (pumpkin and melon family)

Life > eukaryotes > Archaeoplastida > Chloroplastida > Charophyta > Streptophytina > Plantae (land plants) > Tracheophyta (vascular plants) > Euphyllophyta > Lignophyta (woody plants) > Spermatophyta (seed plants) > Angiospermae (flowering plants) > Eudicotyledons > Core Eudicots > Rosids > Eurosid I > Order: Cucurbitales

There are about 118 genera and 845 species of Cucurbitaceae worldwide, with 17 genera and 91 species native to southern Africa, a further two genera and three species that are naturalised, and a further six genera and 16 species that are cultivated in the region. Some well known vegetables fall in this family such as Watermelon, Hubbard Squash, Butternut, Pumpkin, sweet melons and Cucumber.

Genera native to southern Africa

List from Welman (2000).

Acanthosicyos (nara genus)

The two species have an African distribution and both occur in southern Africa.


Four species, native to from Africa through to Asia with three species native to southern Africa. Watermelon is a domesticated form of Citrullus lanatus which has a wide distribution from Asia through to Africa where it is found in the Kalahari and called Tsamma. An additional two species are cultivated in the region.


About 30 species, 29 of which are only found in Africa, and one with a wider distribution in the Old World. 11 species are native to southern Africa.


About 15 species, native to the Old World tropics but mainly in Africa. There are seven species native to southern Africa.



The two species occur in the Old World tropics, with one of them, Ctenolepis cerasiformis, having a distribution that extends into southern Africa (northern Botswana, Mpumalanga, Zimbabwe and Mozambique).


The 32 species are mainly found in Africa but also in Asia and Australia. There are 20 species native to southern Africa and a further four species that are cultivated in the region. This genus includes muskmelons, wintermelons, spaanspek (all domesticated forms of Cucumis melo), cucumber (Cucumis sativus) and gherkins (Cucumis anguria - although almost all so-called gherkins sold in shops are in fact baby cucumbers).


Two of the three species are found in Africa and one in Madagascar. The only species found in southern Africa is Cyclantheropsis parviflora


Two species, native to Africa and India, with one species, Dactyliandra welwitschiiin southern Africa (Namibia).



Two species native to southern Africa.


Five species, native to Africa, with three species in southern Africa.



About 25 species, native to the Old World tropics, with nine species native to southern Africa.


About six species, mainly in tropical Africa, with three species native to southern Africa.


About 40 species, native to the Old World with most of the species in the African tropics. There are 11 species native to southern Africa and another one that is naturalised in the region.  


About 20 species, native to Africa, Madagascar, Aldabra and Seychelles, with four species native to southern Africa.


Five species worldwide (tropical Africa and Madagascar), of which one Raphidiocystis chrysocoma is native to southern Africa (Zimbabwe and Mozambique).


Eight species, native to Africa, with five species native to southern Africa. 


About 30 species, native from Africa to the East Indies and Australia, with seven species native to southern Africa.

Genera naturalised in southern Africa

List from Plants of Southern Africa - an Online Checklist (SANBI).


One species naturalised: Diplocyclos palmatus (Native bryony).



One species, Telfairia pedata, is rarely naturalised in southern Africa (Zimbabwe and Mozambique). See Flora of Zimbabwe.


Other genera, cultivated in southern Africa

List from Glen (2002).

Telfairia pedata (Oyster nut, Kweme)

Native to tropical Africa.



Three species cultivated: Luffa acutangula, native to Pakistan, Luffa aegyptiaca (Loofah), native to tropical Africa and Asia and Luffa cylindrica


Two species cultivated: Bryonia alba, native from Europe to Turkestan, and Bryonia dioica (White bryony), native from Europe to western Asia.


Ecballium elaterium (Squirting cucumber)

Native from Europe and, North Africa through to the Caucasus. When ripe, the fruit (which is poisonous) squirts out a mucilaginous liquid that contains the seeds, hence the common name.


Cucurbita (pumpkin, squash, marrow genus)

About 27 species, native to the warmer regions of the Americas. Three well-known, domesticated vegetable species are in this genus and cultivated in southern Africa, namely Cucurbita maxima (Hubbard Squash and others), Cucurbita moschata (Butternut) and Cucurbita pepo (Pumpkin, Gem Squash, Marrow, Courgette)

Sechium edule (Susu, Chayote, Christophine, Chow chow)

Has a pantropical distribution.



  • Glen, H.F. 2002. Cultivated plants of southern Africa. Jacana, Johannesburg.

  • Jeffrey, C. 1967. Flora of Tropical East Africa. Cucurbitaceae: 1-156.

  • Jeffrey, C. 1975. Further notes on Cucurbitaceae 3. Kew Bulletin 30: 485-491.

  • Jeffrey, C. 1978. Cucurbitaceae. Flora Zambesiaca 4: 414-499.

  • Launert, E. & Roessler, H. 1968. Cucurbitaceae. Prodromus einer Flora von Südwestafrika 94: 1-22.

  • Meeuse, A.D.J. 1962. The Cucurbitaceae of southern Africa. Bothalia 8: 1-111.

  • Welman, W.G. 2000. Cucurbitaceae. In: Seed Plants of Southern Africa (ed. O.A. Leistner). Strelitzia 10: 237-241. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.