Last week a farmer friend of mine handed me a large squash that I was to use for testing some recipes. This was supposed to be Boston Marrow, an old heirloom squash well known and popular in and around Boston and elsewhere in the Northeast beginning in the second quarter of the 19th century. It commonly available in seed catalogs to the second half of the 20th century. It is of the Hubbard group, large, orange or reddish orange with faint pale orange stripes extending from the stem end, down to the small protruding blossom scar. It can weigh from 15 pounds on up, easily reaching 30. It became a classic New England squash, like blue Hubbard, although the species, maxima, originates in South America.
Boston Marrow from 2010 harvest with an errant neck
A story relates this variety came from Indians who visited Buffalo, quite possibly the Seneca or Tuscarora, and in 1831 the seed was sent to a Mr. John Ives of North Salem, Massachusettes, from a friend in Northampton, Massachusettes. According to Ives, in the Spring of 1833 “I distributed seeds to many members of the Mass.. Horticultural Society, they never having seen it previously. At the annual exhibit of this Society at Faneuil Hall, September 1834, I exhibited a specimen, merely marked "New Squash."
Engraving of Autumnal or Boston Marrow from the
19th century showing original form
The next month he forwarded the name Autumnal Marrow along with a wood cut to various farm and garden publications.
According to James J. H. Gregory the famous seedsman from who specialized in squash, founder of the Marblehead Seed Company, and introducer of Hubbard squash, Boston Marrow was originally a small squash weighing 5 or 6 pounds, fine grained and dry, with an excellent flavor.
There is no further evidence to back up this story, and maxima type squashes were not recognized as being grown by Indians in North America until the early 20th century. However maxima squash were known to have been brought to New England at Marblehead and likely other ports in the 18th century, and Hubbard type squash were in Marblehead by 1798. Given the history of maxima squash, it is entirely possible that squash of this type had come in to the Indian's possession by 1831. That authorities might not have been aware of what varieties Indians were growing is not surprising, especially in the Northeast. To state that Indians did not and do not advertise their varieties today is an understatement.
Precisely how the Autumnal Marrow developed in to its larger form is unclear; according to Gregory "marketmen found that by crossing with the African and South American varieties, they could increase the size of the original Marrow,” and from what I can glean, apparently keep its basic form while compromising the quality of the texture and flavor.
Gregory indicates there were at least three types; a large form with a green tip being “mongrel variety” a medium size, both of which were not of great quality, and the original type which tended to be more commonly found from the original stock around Marblehead, later ripening, and presumably sold by his seed company. The squash my friend gave me had a feature that no proper Bostonian squash would admit to having: a neck. While from the neck down this squash looks like Boston Marrow, clearly it had morphed to a new form that was incorrect. I looked at the Seed Savers Exchange catalog and sure enough there was a picture of Boston Marrows with a neck. A quick check with Baker Creek Seeds revealed the same source of seed and thus an incorrect offering.
When my farmer friend gave me the Boston Marrow I immediately declared that its form was wrong. I didn’t remember growing Boston Marrow thirteen years ago with anything resembling a neck—my recollection was of a 15 lb squash just like the picture in the engraving. Other fruit I had seen grown in more fertile soil were thirty pounds, yet the form was correct. They may have had a bit more taper at the stem end than I recall and certainly nothing like I am presently seeing. At that time I didn’t keep growing Boston Marrow because while it was rare, it was still available commercially in handful of catalogs. Now it is having a revival, enjoying a bit of fame, being included in Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, making it a particularly important variety to conserve and hopefully as accurately as possible.
As early as 1856 an author in the Country Gentleman magazine was decrying the variability of Boston Marrow and that from the variety of fruits exhibited people were not saving seed properly. It would seem then based on the Boston Marrow’s history that there has always been some variability, and like all Hubbards there’s a pronounced taper at the stem end, and in some types, the taper is a bit more exaggerated though rarely forming a distinct neck.
There is then the question of which type of Boston Marrow are we talking about?
Photo from late 19th century trial.
Notice the summer squash next to it ...
this may be the smaller size marrow
The type I am familiar with, and believe has been exclusively in circulation for the last couple of decades, is the larger, less firm and sweet fleshed type, not the original introduction. Hopefully there’s some people out there who have been saving and selecting for the proper type. Now I’m on the prowl for some of that seed to help insure that this variety continue to be properly preserved and that the commercial sources can offer something closer to one of the original types. And then there's the possibility that the true Autumnal Marrow is kicking around somewhere.
Photo from the Cucurbits of NY in 1935. Still looking good!
Lawrence Davis-Hollander is an ethnobotanist, plantsmen and gardener, former director and founder of the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy, and currently a principal of DandelionGardening Arts. He's an expert on heirloom vegetables, and a seed preservationist with an avid interest in herbs, spices, food, cooking, kitchen and ornamental gardens. His newest project revolves around sacred tobacco and its redistribution to native peoples. You can find him on Google+.