Lost & Found Squash Varieties

Follow the story of a chance encounter that led to the rediscovery of a heirloom squash variety: the Nanticoke Maycock.

  • After planting the maycock seed in 2004, it yielded about five or six distinct types of squash.
    Photo courtesy of www.RareSeeds.com
  • A 1771 watercolor illustrates one of the maycocks that emerged from the author's growout.
    Photo courtesy of William Woys Weaver

Back in 1997 I was asked to speak at the Salem County Historical Society in Salem, N.J., an old Quaker town situated in the middle of well-preserved farmlands with an agricultural history going back to the 1600s.

Not knowing what to charge as an honorarium, I suggested that instead of money, why not have everyone who attends bring heirloom seeds with their stories. That was probably the most brilliant stroke of genius I could have ever come up with because the outcome was totally overwhelming: I returned home with boxes and boxes of rare and unusual varieties.

This brings me to Nanticoke maycocks and the gradual resurrection of a rare, almost extinct group of Native American summer squashes that are now among my most-prized heirloom vegetables.

One of the people attending the lecture was an elderly woman from Millsboro, Delaware. She had come across the bay via the Lewes ferry and brought along a bag of squash seeds that she had wrapped in tin foil and frozen in 1982 with the idea of finding a home for them because she could no longer garden. She had grown up among a group of people in the backwoods swamps of Eastern Shore Maryland who claimed to be the descendants of Nanticoke Indians, although she was quick to admit she had a few pirates and runaway slaves in her genealogical tree as well.

I gave her my card and said “write me” because in the flurry of the lecture evening, the chatter of several hundred people, there was no time to sit down and talk at length. I wrote what little she related to me on the outside of the bag and let it go at that, perhaps at the time rather dubious that I had indeed acquired something old and rare. No time to plant the seed myself, I repacked them into my own freezer when I got home and did not get back to the seed until 2004. I never did hear from the woman and was puzzled what next to do.

Looking back on that evening, I wish I had taken a tape recorder because I have since lost touch with her and now have literally hundreds of questions to ask. That kind of serendipity is part of the process of collecting heirloom seeds; the lesson learned is to stay completely on top of the moment, because we may not have a second opportunity to get the best part of the story.



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