Mother Earth Gardener

Squash on the Scene: The Evolution of Cucurbits

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. moschatais 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.

C. pepo is thought to be one of the first domesticated species. The oldest remains were found in the Oaxaca Valley of Mexico and were dated to approximately 8750 B.C. This species has also been found at archaeological sites in Missouri (4000 B.C.) and Mississippi (1400 B.C.), which leads some archaeologists to hypothesize that it was domesticated at two separate locations. There are eight varieties of edible C. pepo: pumpkin (C. pepo var. pepo), scallop (C. pepo var. clypeata), acorn (C. pepo var. turbinata), crookneck (C. pepo var. torticollia), straightneck (C. pepo var. recticollis), vegetable marrow (C. pepo var. fastigata), cocozzelle (C. pepo var. inoga), and zucchini (C. pepo var. cylindrica).

Origins of The Three Sisters

In Mesoamerica, wild Cucurbita species grew in the fields with beans and teosinte (corn’s ancestor). Over thousands of years, indigenous farmers domesticated versions of the three wild ancestors and planted them together, replicating the way they occurred in nature. The trio, called the “Three Sisters,” is a symbiotic growing system in which each plant benefits from the others. The squash shades the ground from heat and acts as mulch to suppress weeds and to conserve moisture. The maize provides a structure for the beans to climb, and the beans provide their own nitrogen, which both the maize and the squash benefit from. The Three Sisters crops are thought to have reached the northeast corner of what would become the United States by about 1300 A.D. (For more information about the Three Sisters growing technique, read the final installment of this series in our Winter 2017/2018 issue.)

Indigenous Uses of Squash

Most likely, ancient squashes, with their hard rinds, were first grown for drying and for use as storage containers, bowls, utensils, and fishing floats. Later, they were cultivated for their nutritious seeds and then for their flesh.

Squash became a main dietary staple of the indigenous people of the Americas. The small, early fruits were steamed or boiled, sometimes with squash blossoms and animal fat. Squash slices and blossoms were dried for winter eating. Seeds were boiled or roasted. The fall-harvested squashes had thicker rinds, making them good for winter storage. They were roasted whole in a fire; sometimes their rinds were cut into long spiral strips, dried, pounded, and woven into mats.

The first explorers in the Americas saw a wide variety of squashes growing with maize and beans. They derived the word “squash” from “askutasquash,” the Narragansett word for “green thing eaten raw.” The explorers took squash seeds back to Europe when they returned home. Most ships docked at Spanish ports, and from there the seeds were flung far and wide over vast trade routes. Squash thrived in the climate of the Mediterranean region, along with other heat-loving crops, such as peppers, tomatoes, maize, and beans.

Squash in the Old World

Although Cucurbita species bore novel fruits from the New World, the bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria) is native to the tropics of Africa and was traded and shared across Europe for thousands of years. One of the first cultivated plants in the world, the bottle gourd was mostly dried and used for containers and utensils rather than for eating. Both Cucurbita and Lagenaria are in the Cucurbitaceae family.

Old European paintings of farmers markets show the differences between the bottle gourd from Africa and the new Cucurbita species that arrived from the Americas. In the 1500s, before there was a system of botanical classification, cucurbits were distinguished by whether they were round or elongated. Round species were the pumpkins, acorns, and scallops. Elongated species were the marrows, zucchini, and crooknecks. Squash was further identified through botanical drawings, paintings, and literature of the times.

At first, squash was perceived as poor man’s food, but Europeans eventually accepted it and even developed many of the heirloom squashes we know and enjoy today.

Zucchini in Italy and France

In old Italy, zucca meant “squash or pumpkin,” zucchino meant “small squash or pumpkin,” and zucchini was plural. By the early 1800s in Tuscany, the word zucchini had come to describe a dry gourd used to store tobacco. A mere 50 years later, it meant any young fruit of the elongate cucurbits. Ultimately, the word “zucchini” existed long before the variety itself.

The Italians were known for their enthusiastic use of squash, and they took advantage of copious harvests by deep-frying the blossoms and boiling, stuffing, baking, and frying the fruits. In the 1920s, Italian immigrants helped popularize zucchini in the United States. It took a few decades, however, before the abundance and versatility of zucchini made it the most economically important squash. Two of the best-known Italian heirlooms are ‘Costata Romanesco’ and ‘Cocozelle,’ which is striped and slightly nutty tasting.

The French word for zucchini is courgette. It’s a main ingredient in the iconic French dish ratatouille, which also includes eggplants, peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and spices. Courgettes are often stuffed with meat and vegetables. A beloved French heirloom is the green, pumpkin-shaped ‘Ronde de Nice’ zucchini. The squash, whose name means “round (squash) from Nice (France),” is eaten as a young, 3-inch diameter summer pumpkin but can also be harvested later as a mature fall pumpkin. Its round shape makes it easy to stuff and bake.

Pumpkins in Britain

The British were as fond of pumpkin as the Italians were of zucchini. The word “pumpkin” was derived from the Greek pepon, meaning “large melon.” The British called it pumpion, which eventually evolved into “pumpkin” in the New World. Pumpion was a common crop in Britain by 1600. It was boiled, baked, or fried and combined with apples, raisins, herbs, and spices. The British were accomplished pie makers. Back then, pie was a pastry stuffed with sweet or savory ingredients. As a matter of course, pumpion became one of them, and pumpkin pie was (sort of) born.

The Brits took their baking skills to America, but there were no ovens. Cooking was done over an open fire in a hearth. The resourceful settlers cut off the top of a pumpkin, scooped out the seeds, filled the cavity with honey, milk, and spices, replaced the top, and put the entire pumpkin in the coals of the fire. The result was a custard similar to today’s pumpkin-pie filling. The creamy filling wasn’t baked inside a crust or pastry until the late 1700s. A versatile food in colonial America, pumpkin was also used to make bread, cookies, pudding, and beer.

‘Connecticut Field Pumpkin’ was developed by New England settlers and is the traditional American heirloom pumpkin. Cultivars derived from it include ‘Sugar Pie’ and ‘New England Pie,’ both of which are smaller and sweeter.

Squash from Around the World

Squash diversity exploded after the seed left North America, and the five basic domesticated species returned as hundreds of unique heirlooms. Crookneck, acorn, scallop, marrow, and kabocha squash made their way back to the Americas from Japan, Turkey, New Zealand, India, and Poland, among other places.

Today we grill, fry, stuff, bake, dry, pickle, and sauté our summer squash. We turn our winter squash into pie, soup, pancakes, and bread. Because of the economic importance of squash, many cultivars are now hybridized. To maintain the vast cucurbit diversity developed over thousands of years, we need to grow and share heirlooms. Passing down their seeds and stories will help them thrive for at least another 10,000 years.

Nan Fischer is founder of the Taos Seed Exchange, a free seed-swapping service offered to home gardeners in Taos County, New Mexico. She has a degree in horticulture and has used her knowledge to nurture plants for more than 40 years.

  • Published on Sep 26, 2017
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