Wonderful Heirloom Winter Squash
These little pepos include a range of heirloom winter squash varieties perfect for growing and eating.
Freshly harvested Blue Hubbard squashes are ready for customers at a farmers’ market.
Of the fall and winter storage vegetables, winter squash is one of the easiest to grow, one of the few to form aboveground, and the only one that is actually a fruit. The fruit itself is known as a pepo — a modified or epigynous berry.
Many heirloom winter squash fruits are classified as small — under 5 to 6 pounds. All the plants are prodigious when it comes to vining, in some varieties a bit less so than their larger cousins. Heirloom semibush varieties exist, represented by summer squash, and clever plant breeders have created modern bush winter squashes.
One of the difficulties with hybrid winter squash is that the fruit often outweighs the everyday needs of a modern household, reaching 15 to 30 pounds or more.
Squash are a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, which consists of more than 800 species and is populated by such relatives as gourds, watermelons, cucumbers, winter melons, cantaloupes and gherkins. Generally these are vining plants of tropical or semitropical origin from the Old and New World. In other words, they like warmth and are frost sensitive. The Cucurbita genus is characterized by about 20 New World species, four of which are familiar to most of us through their edible fruits, including the pepo squash.
Native squash species
Many wild species are native to North America, especially Mexico. In the United States, these include Cucurbita foetidissima or the Missouri gourd; Cucurbita digitata or the finger-leaved gourd; Cucurbita palmata or the coyote melon; Cucurbita texana or Texas gourd; and the wild Cucurbita pepo.
Cucurbita pepo are classically thought of as the orange pumpkins and other winter squash such as acorn, spaghetti and delicata. Summer squash varieties including yellow summer squash, zucchini, pattypan, and bush scallop are part of the same group.
Pepo squash most likely originated in Mexico about 10,000 years ago and were of the orange type, and then again about 4,000 to 5,000 years ago in eastern North America. This second domestication produced pepo squash varieties that possess green, white and yellow skin and originated from the Ozark wild gourd, a weedy, inedible, orange gourd known to grow wild in Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Alabama, Illinois, Tennessee and Louisiana. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that researchers discovered these were the ancestors of eastern North American squash from which Native Americans developed new varieties.
Generally the flesh of this group is eaten, although pumpkin seeds are often roasted and eaten coated with salt or dehulled to produce pepitas. A number of varieties are cultivated that produce hull-less or naked seeds. This includes the Styrian pumpkin cultivated for its oil seed in parts of Eastern Europe for more than 100 years; the oil is used sparingly for culinary purposes with reputed medicinal and health benefits.
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