Squash on the Scene: The Evolution of Cucurbits

Squash, pumpkins, zucchini, and their cousins all have deep roots in ancient North and South America.

  • Scallop squash (Cucurbita pepo var. clypeata) can be yellow, white, or striped.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Mallivan
  • The ‘Jumbo Pink Banana’ squash (C. maxima) is a high-yielding crop with dry, sweet, orange flesh. It can weigh between 10 and 40 pounds.
    Photo by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.RareSeeds.com)
  • Bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceraria) were one of the first cultivated plants in the world, and they come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Dmitri Maruta
  • Heirloom squash comes in all sorts of colors, from classic orange to smokey blue.
    Photo by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.RareSeeds.com)
  • The ‘Green Striped Cushaw’ squash has large, vigorous vines that grow well in the South.
    Photo by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.RareSeeds.com)
  • The figleaf gourd (Cucurbita ficifolia) is grown for its edible seeds, fruit, and greens. Other common names for it include Malabar gourd, black-seed squash, and cidra.
    Photo by wikimedia
  • Both the fruit and the blossoms of many cucurbits are edible.
    Photo by adobe stock/lissbetha
  • Costata Romanesco’ Italian zucchini is unique in that its ribbed sides create star-shaped slices when cut.
    Photo by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.RareSeeds.com)
  • Straightneck squash are in the C. Pepo species.
    Photo adobe stock/minicel73
  • The ‘Connecticut Field Pumpkin’ is the oldest American heirloom pumpkin and is well-suited to pies. It reaches about 20 pounds in 100 days.
    Photo by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.RareSeeds.com)

This article is Part 3 of Nan Fischer’s four-part series about Three Sisters crops. Part 1 is Ancient Beans for Modern Gardeners and Part 2 is A-Maize-ing Maize: The History of Corn. The fourth and final installment will appear in our Winter 2017/2018 issue.

The main ingredient in both traditional pumpkin pie and the ubiquitous zucchini bread is the result of millennia of selection and breeding. Like all of our modern food crops, squash (Cucurbita spp.) once grew in the wild. The ancestral species of today’s cucurbits are native to North and South America and were present long before the arrival of humans. The earliest known evidence of their domestication dates back nearly 10,000 years ago, which predates the domestication of both beans and maize. Of the dozens of wild cucurbits, five were domesticated:

Cucurbita maxima includes many of the winter squashes (buttercup, banana, and Hubbard) and originated in South America.

C. moschata is from Mesoamerica or South America. The oldest remains, dating from 4900 B.C. to 3500 B.C., were found in northwestern Mexico. This species includes butternut squash and golden cushaw.

C. argyrosperma is a species of winter squash that’s believed to have originated in southern Mexico more than 7,000 years ago. It includes the green-striped cushaw and the silver-seeded gourd.

C. ficifolia is commonly called the figleaf gourd, and its place of domestication was somewhere in Mesoamerica or South America; the oldest remains were found in Peru.



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