Is Zucchini a Fruit or Vegetable?

Zucchini is one of summer’s classic vegetable crops…or is it? Whether you label a zucchini as a fruit or a vegetable depends on whom you ask. Sometimes these definitions disagree, but they’re all legitimate!

What’s the Dictionary Say?

According to Merriam-Webster, a fruit is the mature ovary of a flowering plant. Although not all fruits are edible, they all are reproductive bodies that contain seeds. This means that zucchini, like all squashes, meet the dictionary definition of a fruit.

Zucchini grow male and female flowers on the same plant. Since female flowers have ovaries, only these will develop zucchini fruit after pollination. The ovary is at the base of the flower’s stem and will mature into the dark green squash we know as zucchini.

The dictionary’s definition of a vegetable is any edible part of an herbaceous plant. Vegetables are roughly divided by what part we eat: leaf vegetables like lettuce, root vegetables like carrots and parsnips, and so on.

“Herbaceous” refers to the plant’s stem tissue. It’s soft and usually grows for one season, not woody like fruit trees. Zucchini have herbaceous stems, and its fruit is definitely edible. So why does the dictionary definition of vegetable exclude zucchini?

It’s a little semantic, but the fruit of a plant isn’t technically considered one of its parts. Remember that a zucchini is called a “reproductive body” since it contains seeds. Think of this seed-containing body like a chicken egg. A chicken lays an egg that contains new life, but the egg isn’t really part of the chicken it came from.

That’s the main difference! Although zucchini plants meet the other criteria for vegetables, the fruit that we eat isn’t a “part” of that plant. It’s a reproductive body that has seeds, making it a fruit according to the dictionary.

Is Zucchini a Fruit or Vegetable in Horticulture

Horticulture has its own set of classification rules. Plants with similar characteristics, growth conditions, or climate needs are usually grouped together. Instead of using plant anatomy, horticulturalists group zucchini by the way they grow.

Horticulture’s categories of edible plants include tree fruits, small fruits like berries, and vegetables. This definition focuses on the way zucchini are most commonly eaten. Zucchini lacks the sweetness we associate with other culinary fruit. They also appear in main/savory dishes more often than in desserts, so horticulture groups them with vegetables.

Since horticulture is the “science” of gardening, it also divides fruits from vegetables by metrics like water needs or root depth. Zucchini’s growth is more compatible with root and leaf vegetables than with other true fruits. Horticulture guides even group zucchini with other “truck crops” like carrots and lettuce.

Zucchini are in the same species as pumpkins and squash. Like their fellow squashes, although they are biological fruits, gardeners often cultivate zucchini alongside other vegetables. We eat zucchini as a vegetable in its unripe state, before its skin loses tenderness.

What Does the US Judicial System Say

What happens when zucchini are exported, imported, or taxed? In 1893, the fruit-or-vegetable debate famously landed in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Nix v. Hedden was a case brought by a fruit importer who argued that tomatoes should be labeled fruits, not vegetables (vegetable imports were heavily taxed at the time). They even brought witnesses to confirm the scientific definition of fruit!

Despite the science, the court ruled unanimously against the importer and declared the tomato a vegetable. Their ruling looked past botany to the common meanings of fruit and vegetable. Legally, the difference lies in how a plant is used by the ordinary public.

This definition extends to zucchini. Zucchini, like the tomato, gets cooked in savory recipes more often than desserts. Grocery store shoppers look for zucchini with other vegetables, and gardeners grow it in their vegetable gardens. From a legal standpoint, it’s safe to assume zucchini is a vegetable!

Is Zucchini a Fruit or Vegetable in Botany?

As the study of plant life, botany takes a close look at a plant’s anatomy in order to classify it. What does the zucchini’s structure and development say to a botanist?

The botanical definition of a fruit is the ovary of a flowering plant that develops seeds after fertilization. In some cases, fruit develops even without fertilization.

Vegetables in botany are the edible parts of an herbaceous plant (such as the stem, root, or leaves). Because zucchini grow from the ovaries of female flowers, botanists define zucchini as fruit.

Now that we’ve confirmed zucchini are botanically fruits, get ready for a twist: zucchini are technically berries!

A berry is a type of fruit from a single ovary that has many seeds. Specifically, zucchini are a type of berry called a pepo that grows a hard rind.

You can imagine this pepo rind if you remember that zucchini and pumpkins share the same species. The difference is that we harvest zucchini earlier, before their tender skin can harden. Zucchini seeds are also smaller and less noticeable thanks to earlier harvests.

Culinary Use

Although botanists consider zucchini a fruit, most culinary uses for zucchini treat it as a savory vegetable. In fact, the USDA includes zucchini in the Vegetable Group.
This culinary classification focuses on zucchini’s flavor and nutrient profile and its common uses in cooking.

The USDA Fruit Group includes botanical fruits that also have a sweet or sour flavor. Zucchini’s watery, mild flavor doesn’t meet these criteria. The Vegetable Group includes many other botanical fruits that lack sweetness, like avocados and cucumbers. People also tend to pair zucchini with other botanical vegetables while cooking.

On the other hand, you’ve probably heard of zucchini bread! This sweet recipe is an exception to the common rules of cooking zucchini. Most of the sweetness still comes from added sweeteners; zucchini’s role is more to add moisture. In fact, zucchini bread is usually treated as a way to sneak in an extra serving of vegetables, so we can leave zucchini in the “culinary vegetable” category.

What Do We Think as a Culture?

In most of Europe and the Americas, zucchini is grown and cooked as a vegetable. Zucchini often features in savory recipes with other late-summer crops like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant.

If you know many movies, chances are you already know one famous example: a French dish called ratatouille.

Squashes like zucchini are among the three earliest cultivated plants in North America and Mexico. Centuries before European settlers arrived in North America, the Iroquois cultivated squash, maize, and beans together in a trio called “The Three Sisters“.

These three crops worked together as companion plants and were the staple of many Native American diets.

After squashes were brought back from the New World, it’s believed the first zucchini were cultivated in Italy in the late 1800s.

“Zucca” is the Italian word for squash, while “zucchina” translates to “little squash.” Italian immigrants introduced this new and improved zucchini squash back to the United States in the 1920s.

Interesting Facts About Zucchini

Zucchini blossoms are not only edible, they’re considered a delicacy! Since only female flowers produce zucchini, most of the male flowers can be eaten (just leave a few for pollination.) You can identify the male flowers by their thinner stems. A very Italian method is to stuff zucchini blossoms with a ricotta cheese mixture and fry them whole.

Zucchini can cross-pollinate with other members of its species. The Cucurbita pepo species contains everything from pumpkins to summer squash, so it’s not recommended to save seeds from your zucchini harvest. Thankfully, this cross-pollination won’t affect your current crop’s yields or flavor.

Are your zucchini vines flowering but not producing fruit? No need for concern. Except in hybrids, all those early flowers are male. Your zucchini won’t start fruiting until female flowers appear and receive pollen.

Believe it or not, some varieties produce zucchini without fertilization! This minor miracle is called parthenocarpy and is controlled by plant hormones. Parthenocarpic zucchini are seedless. Best of all, since pollination isn’t a concern, you can grow your zucchini under floating row covers that double as insect protection. If you’re plagued by squash beetles, consider a parthenocarpic zucchini like Venus or Cavilli!

If you’re growing another variety and having trouble with squash beetles give neem oil a shot. Neem oil is 100% organic and is great for all pests that are above ground and eat foliage.

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