Squash Has Close History With Humans

A gardening expert shares her knowledge on the history of squash.

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In Mexico during festivals, it is not unusual to find squash flowers and the spicy chocolate black mole. (All photos courtesy of Maureen Gilmer.)

Squash may be the catalytic plant that graduated ancient peoples from hunter / gatherer to grower. Remnants of Curcurbita seed found in caves in Ecuador prove to be 12,000 years old. This predates the previously known dawn of agriculture by hundreds of years and the advent of cultivated corn by 2,000.

But why squash? They say the large fruits of wild squash were easy to find. They offered flesh, nutritious seed, edible flowers and even containers. The first ceramic pots were formed to resemble commonly used vessels made from a hard-shell squash known as gourd.

Roadside vendors cook up luscious quesadillas of fresh squash blossoms and locally made string cheese.
Americans routinely discard squash flowers and the weed purslane, but in Mexico they can be found in most open markets.
Beautiful bright orange flowers are picked off squash vines to limit new fruit, ensuring that existing squash reach full size.

Summer squash are grouped under Curcurbita pepo. Winter squash and pumpkins are C. maxima or C. moschata. Their point of origin is Mesoamerica.

During a 10,000-year long history, the plants gradually migrated north with Native American populations. Their cultivation would become widespread, grown piggy-backed with corn and beans, the legendary three sisters of Indian agriculture.

Tribes of New England were well entrenched in growing winter squash. Absent at that famous meal at Plymouth were yams, an African native. Sweet potatoes were limited to the warmer Deep South. Thanksgiving featured various hard-shell squash, dubbed vegetable marrow, and pumpkins grown by the Indians. The colonists quickly saw the wisdom in cultivating a plant that could be stored in a cellar for much of the winter without any special care.

Native American farmers also harvested squash flowers. Each squash plant bears long vines that produce many male and female flowers. After enough young fruit is developing, they pinched off new flowers to eliminate further fruit production. This ensured that each pumpkin or squash reached its maximum size. This practice also provided a plentiful supply of freshly cut flowers throughout the growing season.

Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden is perhaps the most important book ever written on the details of Native American gardening on the Missouri River flood plain. In it we learn that the Hidatsa and their neighbors also harvested the flowers on a daily basis. The flowers would be boiled, often with corn and other wild seed.

But the farming tribes also preserved the blossoms for later use. Bird Woman would lay them out carefully onto "deer hair" grass to create a large homogenous mass. When dry, she'd roll it all up and store in bags for winter. There is no doubt that all other tribes who grew the three sisters did much the same thing.

Today the squash blossoms are brought fresh into Mexican markets every morning. In regions close to the point of origin for the species, a cheese quesadilla of squash blossoms is still a popular festival food.

Two sources offer exciting Native American winter squash and pumpkins for next year's garden. Order catalogs or peruse their online stores. From nonprofit Native Seed/SEARCH come over a dozen different varieties from indigenous tribes of the desert Southwest and northern Mexico. They are great choices for hot, dry climates. Take a look at the oldest variety, Magdalena Big Cheese, plus Acoma Pumpkin, Striped Pima Bajo Sequalca and many others. Shop online at www.nativeseeds.com.

A smaller selection from Seeds of Change catalog include Lakota Winter Squash, vivid Hopi Orange and Texas Indian Moshata. Check out their online store at www.seedsofchange.com, or order their catalog by calling 800-762-7333.

Winter is the best time to plan the new year's garden of new and different heirloom varieties. Grow them to look at, grow them for seed or for flowers. Come next Thanksgiving you can take a pass on the high-carb potatoes and cook up a delicious dish of more historically accurate vegetable marrow.

(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of Weekend Gardening on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. For more information, visit www.moplants.com or www.DIYNetwork.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)

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