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 squash fruits are classified as small — under 5 to 6 pounds. All the plants are prodigious when it comes to vining — in some cultivars a bit less so than their larger cousins. Heirloom semibush cultivars exist, represented by summer squash, and clever plant breeders have created modern bush winter squash cultivars.
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 Types of Winter Squash
Many wild species are native to North America, especially Mexico. In the United States, these include the Missouri gourd (Cucurbita foetidissima), finger-leaved gourd (C. digitata), coyote melon (C. palmata), Texas gourd (C. texana), and the wild C. pepo.
C. pepo are classically thought of as the orange pumpkins and other types of winter squash, such as members within the acorn, spaghetti, and delicata groups. Summer squash groups, including yellow summer squash, zucchini, pattypan, and bush scallop, are part of this species as well.
Pepo squash most likely originated in Mexico about 8,000 to 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 cultivars that possess green, white, and yellow skin and originated from the Ozark wild gourd (C. pepo var. ozarkana), 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 cultivars.
Generally the flesh of this group is eaten, although pumpkin seeds are often roasted and eaten coated with salt. A number of squash are grown that produce hulless or naked seeds. This includes the Styrian pumpkin (C. pepo var. styriaca), 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.
Down to specifics
Many pepo squash are excellent keepers. I have had fruits of acorn squash last into June, and they reliably keep until spring.
One of the smaller pumpkin cultivars that has gained considerable notoriety in recent years is ‘Winter Luxury Pie’ (C. pepo), first introduced in 1893 by the Philadelphia seed company, Johnson and Stokes, and in 1894 by Livingston Seed Co. as ‘Livingston’s Pie Squash.’ As the story goes, it was found in a field by one of Livingston’s customers and cultivated by him for many years. It is uniquely netted (white) somewhat like a cantaloupe, without strongly pronounced ribs, and was originally golden yellow.
The current orange cultivar was introduced in 1920 by Gill Bros. Like most pumpkins, it forms fairly large plants, yielding three or four fruits per vine. Small for a pumpkin, the fruit can weigh up to 8 pounds in good soil, though many specimens are smaller. While it exceeds my criteria for a small squash, it is worth noting for its distinct pumpkin quality. ‘Winter Luxury Pie’ is without a doubt a wonderful eating pumpkin with moderately sweet, thick flesh that makes excellent pies.
Another pumpkin of note is ‘Small Sugar’ (C. pepo) otherwise known as ‘New England Sugar Pie,’ which remains quite popular in the Northeast. This globe-shaped pumpkin is classically orange, flattened at the bottom, and has visible ribbing. The history of ‘Small Sugar’ is unclear, although it was popularly cultivated by 1860 in New England and was the pre-eminent cultivar recommended for pies in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Fruits are smaller than ‘Winter Luxury Pie’ — around 5 pounds and as small as 3 pounds. The flesh is smooth, moderately sweet, and makes good pumpkin pies. The small size also makes this cultivar suitable for table arrangements and soup bowls, albeit for one-time use.
Introduced in 1894 by Peter Henderson and Co. of New York, delicata — also known as sweet potato or peanut squash — was touted as one of the earliest maturing vine squash. The fruits are small, pale yellow, cylindrical, and ribbed with green stripes in the furrows that turn orange during storage. The fairly thin skin is somewhat edible, and the flesh is orange and sweet. They are 1 to 2 pounds, although large specimens may reach 3 pounds.
Members of the delicata squash group went out of fashion shortly after their introduction, perhaps because of their small size and thin flesh. They typically keep for just a few months.
However, during the last couple of decades, they have been widely grown and are thus well-known today. American Cookery: The Boston Cooking-School Magazine from 1918 suggests they be served on toast like asparagus, in cream sauce, or au gratin with cheese sauce. Because of their small size and sweetness, they can be sliced, steamed, and ready for action in 10 minutes, which is my favorite method of preparation.
‘Table Queen’ acorn squash (C. pepo) was introduced in 1913 by the Iowa Seed Co. of Des Moines. While the exact origin of this heirloom squash is unclear, the type is considerably older than the 20th century. The famous North Dakota seedsman Oscar H. Will, great-grandfather of Heirloom Gardener’s Editor-in-Chief, mentions that the Native American Arikara people grew a similar squash that wasn’t quite equal in quality.
Illustrations of acorn or closely related types of squash are included in European herbals as early as 1562 by Leonhart Fuchs, who depicted a white acorn. Early writers, such as Thomas Hariot and Charles de L’Ecluse, described these as Virginia macocqwer or macocks, and John Gerard (1636) as a kind of pompion (pumpkin) but smaller, with a blackish green color when ripe. These cultivars were developed by Native Americans in the eastern portion of the country.
Most of us are familiar with the prominently ribbed, tapering, acorn-like fruits that are black-green except for a light orange where the fruits contact the ground, which gradually turn entirely orange during storage. Fruits typically weigh 1 to 2 pounds and keep well throughout the winter.
The flesh is somewhat dry, a bit fibrous, and moderately sweet. Any deficit is easily cured by a bit of maple syrup and butter. I like them baked face-up with a bit of water in a deep baking pan at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, until the flesh is soft and slightly browned.
A possible progeny of the Fuchs squash is a cream-color cultivar known as ‘Thelma Sanders Sweet Potato’ (C. pepo) that was a family heirloom from Adair County, Missouri, grown by its namesake and entered into seed preservation circles in the late 1980s. It has become popular with heirloom squash aficionados and is considered to be heavy yielding, relatively insect- and disease-resistant, with a great chestnut-like sweet flavor. It’s decidedly different from green acorn types.
All of these types of winter squash are easy to locate, well worth growing, and a great source of winter eating pleasure.