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Magnificent Melons: Welcome to the family Curcubitaceae!

By Laurel Redmon, M.S., L.Ac. Dipl. C.H.

August 1, 2006 
 

Melons and squash evoke the shape of our planet and allow us see the vulnerable nature of Earth.  A thin, tough rind protects the precious resources within.  Beyond the fertile layer under the rind lay seeds that ensure rejuvenation and promise for the future. Pests, by penetrating the rind, can easily rot the entire fruit.

 
Earth is arguably the most crucial element involved in human existence: in fact, it embodies us.  Historically, the Earth school of Chinese Medicine has been very influential.  The famed Middle Kingdom, as China specifically and humanity generally has often been referred, strongly emphasizes the Earth element as the fundamental cornerstone of health and balance.  It has been posited that if the Earth element, including the digestive organs and middle burner (Zhong jiao) are attentively paid attention to and nourished, disease would be evaded in all other organ systems. Health and longevity would automatically ensue.

 
A broad range of applications helps people comprehend the depth and breadth of the Earth element and its impact on our lives.

 
The family Cucurbitaceae gracefully spans the food-medicine continuum: indeed, a decade ago constituents from a squash root were being touted as a cure for AIDS!  This from a family that provides people over the world with dietary staples, energy for convalescence, and even comfort foods for Americans.  This broad range of application helps people comprehend the depth and breadth of the Earth element and its impact on our lives.  One aspect that I particularly admire from this group is its comprehensive application in terms of the 8 parameters. There are Yin and Yang members of this class of food/herbs that can tonify, clear, warm and cool, treating excess and deficient conditions with safety and efficacy.


Please meet some of the distinguished members of this family:

American Pumpkin

Neutral, sweet

 
American pumpkin tonifies the qi and yang of the spleen and stomach.  It can help regulate blood and dry dampness, treat fatigue, qi deficiency, blood deficiency and asthma. Pumpkin seeds are an important vegetarian source of omega-3 fatty acids.   This is also a plant-based vermifuge (kills and expels worms) that is non-toxic.

Pumpkin seeds have a proven record in reducing prostate size in cases of benign prostatic hypertrophy.  Various melon seeds are standard faire during Chinese New Year celebrations, and I would be surprised if they did not share similar functions.

 

Cantaloupe & Honeydew Melon

Cold, sweet

 

Cantaloupe and honeydew clear heat, tonify the kidneys, yin and fluids.  These melons are specifically valuable to manage the effects of summerheat, one of the lesser-known of the six evils, where heat combines with dampness but in a more external manner than, for example, lower burner damp-heat. Balancing fluid metabolism and providing vitamins and minerals make these important summer foods.  Melon may be best ingested alone, as Western food-combining lore suggests. According to Paul Pitchford, melon both digests and ferments rapidly.

 

Cucumber

Sweet, cooling, slightly bitter

 

Cucumber clears heat and toxins as well as regulates fluids. It is effective for treating liver fire (such as red eyes), chronic thirst and sore throat. Cucumber is perhaps most famous for its ability to mediate the sensation of hot chilis, but is distinguished with watermelon for generating healthful fluids and draining pathological dampness and edema.

 

Japanese Pumpkin/ Kombucha squash

 Neutral, sweet

 

Japanese pumpkin, also known as kombucha squash, tonifies the spleen and kidneys, regulates qi and dries dampness.  It is used to treat qi and blood deficiency, wet asthma and diabetes.  This squash has become much more mainstream in recent years in the U.S. for good reason: it is true spleen-friendly comfort food!

 

Loofa / Si Gua Luo

Sweet, neutral

 

This versatile fruit is used as a green vegetable in Asia, an ecofriendly sponge and an important herb in the Chinese pharmacopeia.  It is one of the best examples of the doctrine of signatures. The direct translation if the Chinese name is “net of string melon” and indicates its affinity for small, connected networks in the body, such as the luo channels and collaterals, which are the micro-meridians joining the main meridians.  It can open these up, treating pain and poor circulation resulting from blockage. This concept carries over to loofa’s application for blocked breast ducts and mastitis. There is also a function of “scrubbing” phlegm out of the lungs.  Neutral temperature and low-toxicity, food-like herbs are great agents for home herbalists to know and use.

 

Summer Squash

Neutral, sweet

 

Summer squash refers to zucchini, crookneck, pattypan, etc. These squash help to clear heat while nourishing qi and fluids. Summer squash can be used to treat blood heat (such as systemic poison oak or ivy), summerheat and fever. For both aesthetic and nutritional value, I recommend combining squashes of varying shape and color.

 

Trichosanthes (Gua Luo)

Cold, Sweet

 

This herb enters the lung and large intestine meridians. It is used either in its entirety (Gua luo Shi or Quan Gua Luo), as seeds or peel.  I find the whole fruit most versatile in application. Gua luo can moisten the lungs and resolve phlegm, making it crucial in cases of phlegm-heat in the lungs.  It also has a special function of regulating qi in the chest, which helps ventilate the lungs to resolve coughs and extends to angina and asthmatic conditions.  The large intestine element of gua luo’s application lies in an ability to dispel pus in cases of abscess and also as a mild laxative.  Laxative function here is due to the fiber and oil content of the seeds (gua luo ren).  Dissapating pus and nodules at various sites in the body tie together the qi-regulating and phlegm-expelling properties of this herb.

 

 

Watermelon

Sweet, cold

Clears heat, generates fluids and promotes urination. Clears summerheat and releases the exterior.  While this melon is regarded as a watery, festive thirst quencher, bear in mind that it also provides respectable amounts of lycopene, carotene and vitamin C.

 

Winter Melon / Dong Gua Ren

Sweet, cool

This is a gigantic fruit sold in multiple slabs or wedges at market. The thick rind evokes a winter squash, whereas the flesh is more like a firm summer squash.  Generally eaten cooked, it has a mild flavor that absorbs broth or sauce.  The seed is the primary medicinal agent. The seeds are dry-fried and decocted into a tea that can treat lung and intestinal abscesses.  The heat-clearing and detoxifying properties are also used against coughs with yellow phlegm. As with so many of these herbs, edema can be addressed by both the seed of the winter melon (dong gua ren) as well as the rind (dong gua pi).

 

 

 

Winter Squash

 Sweet, neutral

Some examples of winter squash are butternut, acorn, and hubbard; this category overlaps with pumpkins. Winter squash nourishes the spleen, stomach and middle burner. They nourish qi and blood and expel cold.  It is wise to avoid winter squash in cases of qi and food stagnation, as they can be so dense, sweet and cloying--even without liberal additions of brown sugar and butter.

 

 

 

Oriental peoples have appreciated melons and squashes, the order curcubitaceae, for centuries.  Squashes and melons can be thought of as tonic foods and medicines of the highest order. Their content of vitamins, minerals, flavinoids and medicinal alkaloids is impressive. These plants have been distinguished as one of the three life-giving ‘sisters’ of the New World, along with corn and beans.  Our life on earth ultimately depends on these plants, be it for fuel, food or medicine.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Chen, John K. & Tina T.  Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology.  Art of Medicine Press.  City of Industry:  2004.

 

Lu, Henry C.  Chinese System of Foods for Health and Healing.  Sterling Publishing Compnay.  New York:  2000. 

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