A Lesson on Zucchini

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

Remember the scene in Forest Gump when he goes on about all of the things one can make with shrimp? I’m living that scene right now, but replace the shrimp with zucchini. This versatile veggie can be eaten raw or cooked, for breakfast or dinner, and savory or sweet. You can even eat the blossoms! Even if you think you hate zucchini, a clever cook could easily sneak it into a chocolate cake and you would never know the difference.

While zucchini is native to Central America, European explorers brought the plant back to Europe in the 1800s where they began to cultivate it. Italian immigrants introduced them to the United States in the 1920s. The word zucchini actually comes from the Italian word zucchino. Interestingly enough, the singular form of the word is zucchina. Thankfully, the Grammar Police have never corrected me when I said, “Can you pick up a zucchini at the produce stand?”

I may be a bit biased, but what I find really cool about zucchini is the science. Zucchini are dioecious plants. This means that they have distinctive male and female flowers. A flower that contains the structures for only one sex is known as an incomplete flower. Thankfully, one doesn’t have to be a botanist to see the difference between the two sexes.

Female Flowers - External

A female flower is “attached” to the fruit. The fruit is actually the plant’s ovary.

Male Flowers - External

The male flower lacks an ovary. It’s connected to the plant by a small stem.

Female Flowers - Internal

The flowers also look different on the inside. The female flower contains the stigma. This structure is often sticky in order to trap pollen grains. The stigma leads to a tube called the style. The ovary contains ovules, which is the science term for eggs. Fertilized eggs develop into embryos that we call seeds.

Male Flowers - Internal

Looking inside a male flower, you will see the anther and the filament. Collectively, these are referred to as the stamen. The pollen grains look almost like a yellow powder, but if you were to take a peek with a microscope, you would see hundreds - if not thousands - of individual grains, each holding two sperm cells.

Pollinators, like bees, along with wind and water carry the pollen from the male flower to the female flower. The rest is reproductive history!

Growing and Eating Zucchini

Zucchini are easy to cultivate, but the key is warm weather. Their seeds germinate once the soil is around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Once they’ve germinated, typically within 6-10 days, it takes another 35-60 days until harvest. Zucchini can grow up to 2 inches each day, so you can expect a lot of fruit. Even with only two plants, I found myself having to give them away.

While you’re waiting to get fruit, zucchini blossoms are a lovely delicacy. One word of caution - don’t harvest male flowers until you’re confident that pollination has occurred. Small fruits are part of each and every female flower. However if you were to come along and rob all of the male flowers before the female flowers open and accept the pollen, their fruits will turn yellow and wilt rendering them inedible. If you’re unsure whether or not to pick the male flowers, you can transfer pollen from the male to female flower yourself using a small paintbrush, cotton swab, or other utensil.

Ripe zucchini are typically 4 to 8 inches in length. Really big zucchini can be quite bitter with tough skin and large seeds - not tasty! Zucchini can be eaten raw, though in my experience it’s most often cooked. There are countless recipes available all over the internet. I’ll leave you with one of my absolute favorites - Franco’s Pasta with Zucchini and Potatoes. Don’t let this recipe or the reviews deceive you. It’s good.

Franco’s Pasta with Zucchini and Potatoes