It may sound like the newest local business promising to fill up your coffee mug with the good stuff or get you out the door quick – but it’s actually one of the most ancient types of fruit on the planet.
And with such a long history, there’s a lot to unpack about pepos. So grab your best cup of coffee and settle in – but don’t expect to get out the door too quick.
Well, we’re glad you asked! (It’s why we wrote this page, after all.)
Pepos are a very specific, special – and tasty – type of fruit.
But before we drill into the details, it might be good to take a step back and bask at some grand botany schemes.
As with all life, fruits first start as a very small clutch of cells. And while there are several different ways to bring these life-making cells together in the world of plants, many of our most beloved natural snacks are considered simple fruits, meaning they come from a single ovary.
(Similar to humans, many plants are considered either ‘male’ or ‘female,’ based on how they contribute, genetically, to reproducing. A single ovary, in botany terms, is considered a contribution from a single flower.)
But “simple fruit” is a huge category, comprised of dozens of different species. So the plants are then further classified as either “fleshy” or “dry.”
Pepos reside on the “fleshy” side of things – but even this designation is further refined, with a series of labels describing different families of fleshy simple fruits, including berries, drupes, pomes, hesperidiums, and, yes, pepos.
And this special group of simple fruits just so happens to be noted for their hard, thick rinds, soft, fleshy insides and seeds that tend to reside closer to the walls of the fruit’s skin than its center.
Great. So what does all that scientific jargon look, feel and taste like in real life?
Pepos may have a fairly specific definition, but it actually houses a decently diverse family tree.
When one thinks of pepos, some of the best examples to bring to mind might be members of the gourd family, including pumpkins, squash and zucchini. Other pepos we like to eat include cucumbers and all types of melons, from water- to winter to cantaloupe.
We might not be able to look at a fruit at the grocery store or farmer’s market and know the exact mechanics of its parentage, but, true to definition, these types of fruits all come from a single ovary start.
Outwardly, they all have a few features in common as well, including the tendency to grow on sprawling vines that often sprout large white or yellow flowers, along with the trait of appearing annually.
This, of course, is coupled with their other pepo designations, including those thick rinds (though, in the case of the cucumber, we may take a bit more liberty with the term), fleshy insides and seeds that tend to stick to the perimeters.
But pepos are more than just delicious. In the grand scheme of human history, they’re actually extremely important.
Due to their simple nature, the plants proved easy to grow – even to the point where early humans may have seeded a field completely by accident. As such, pepos were the very first type of fruit to be cultivated by humans.
The best scientific estimates place the intentional growth of pepos all the way back to a mind-blowing 10,000 BC in the Americas and a staggering 13,000 BC in Asia! (The next fruit that even comes close, peppers, didn’t start appearing as an intentionally cultivated crop until around 8,000 BC.)
As an early reliable food source, pepos were likely at least partly responsible for the switch from the hunter-gatherer model to a more set-in-place agricultural life. And, at the very least, they were responsible for feeding a huge number of our shared ancestors for thousands of years.
Due to their hard outer rinds, pepos also proved useful to early humans in a number of other ways – most commonly, with their insides scooped out and their hard shells preserved to make for bowls and cups. (Just imagine how tough it would be for ancient humans to transport things like water without them!)
So they may technically be considered a “simple fruit,” but pepos may well be at the heart of our complex modern civilization. Not bad for a couple of melons!