- Author: Paul McCollum
To all the lovely people,
Heirloom Pumpkin Varieties and Other Squash
Learn how to grow heirloom pumpkin varieties along with other squash varieties.
September 16, 2013
By William Woys Weaver
Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver is the culmination of some thirty years of first-hand knowledge of growing, tasting and cooking with heirloom vegetables. A staunch supporter of organic gardening techniques, Will Weaver has grown every one of the featured 280 varieties of vegetables, and he walks the novice gardener through the basics of planting, growing and seed saving. Sprinkled throughout the gardening advice are old-fashioned recipes — such as Parsnip Cake, Artichoke Pie and Pepper Wine — that highlight the flavor of these vegetables. The following excerpt on heirloom pumpkin varieties was taken from chapter 30, “Pumpkins and Other Squash.”
Buy the brand new e-book of Weaver’s gardening classic in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Heirloom Vegetable Gardening.
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A Brief History of Heirloom Pumpkin Varieties and Other Squash
Let me begin by explaining that pumpkin is merely a term of convenience, for there are only squash. The common distinction that we make between the two is not based on botanical characteristics as we now understand them. On occasion I use the word in this book because “giant squash” sounds peculiar and does not evoke a clear image of shape or size in the minds of American readers. But pumpkins are really a type of squash, and that should be kept in mind at all times.
The word squash is derived from the Algonquin word askutasquash, something that is eaten green, in an unripe state. We associate this with a category of squash grown during the summer, yet even field pumpkins can be eaten young, and the eastern woodland Indians seem to have enjoyed them chat way. The soft cymling or quash (Cucurbita pepo) of the early 1800s was a variety of miniature sugar pumpkin, somewhat apple shaped. It was harvested and eaten in the green state like a modern zucchini, but if allowed to ripen, it developed a hard, woody rind like a gourd.
Today botanists divide pumpkins and squash into six species, four of which include all of the common pumpkins and squash grown by American gardeners. It is important to know these botanical classifications because they serve as a useful tool in preventing unwanted crosses. It is possible to grow four types of squash in one garden, provided they are all of a different species. Of the four species, the maxima and the mixta are the most difficult to distinguish for amateur gardeners.
- Cucurbita maxima. These include some of the largest of our field pumpkins, but fruit size is not a measure of this group. Maxima squash grow on very long vines with huge, hairy leaves. The fruit stems are soft, round, and spongy. The seeds can be white, tan, or brown, with cream-colored margins and a thin membrane coating.
- Cucurbita mixta. Spreading vines with large hairy leaves also characterize this group. The seeds are coated with a thin membrane that cracks when the seeds are dry.
- Cucurbita moschata. These plants produce spreading vines with hairy leaves. The stem flares out at an angle where it is attached to the fruit and is very hard. The seeds have a dark tan margin.
- Cucurbita pepo. The plants of this species have prickly leaves and stems that can cause a rash on some people. The fruit stem is angular with five sides. The seeds are cream-colored with a white margin.
Recent field studies have found some indication that pollen from Cucurbita moschata may cross with the female flowers of Cucurbita mixta. This is probably a rare phenomenon, but precautions should be taken not to raise the two species near each other. In the case of most heirlooms, this finding may be moot, since very few early American squash belong to the mixta species. But it is important to remember that all of the squash species produce both male and female flowers on the same plant. In extremely hot, rainy weather or when the plants are subjected to environmental stress, the female flowers will abort by dropping off and thus failing to form fruit. If this happens, harvest the male flowers for stuffed squash blossoms; it is pointless to waste them.
Any list of heirloom squashes will be subjective because there are virtually hundreds of varieties to choose from. I have selected fifteen varieties that I believe represent a full range of choices for gardens with limited space, keeping mind that old fodder crops like the Tippecanoe pumpkin (introduced in 1840) and the Connecticut field pumpkin were never grown in kitchen gardens anyway. The Farmer’s Encyclopedia (1844, 1009) listed the most popular kitchen garden squashes at that time. There were only nine, and of those I have chosen five that have survived the test of time with remarkable resiliency. In fact, the only squash from the 1844 list that has truly disappeared is Commodore Porter’s Valparaiso.
According to the Gardener’s Magazine (1827, 63), this squash was introduced about 1826. In 1827 Le Bon Jardinier noted that a certain Madam Adanson had published directions for cooking this squash in an unripe state in her book Maison de campagne. This early flurry of popularity may explain why Commodore Porter’s Valparaiso was illustrated in full color in the Album Vilmorin (1878, 29). From a distance the squash resembled a rather large, oblong or egg-shaped coconut, the skin being brown and covered with webbing. The flesh was a rich orange, the seeds white. I have no idea how it tasted, but from an esthetic standpoint, it was downright ugly.
Also omitted from my selection are the English vegetable marrow (never popular in the United States), the cocozelle or Italian vegetable marrow introduced late in the nineteenth century, and the squash now known as zucchini. At one time, cocozelle was used in the East for all zucchinilike squash. During the 1920s and 1930s, the term zucchini came into general use in California, and in time the rest of the country followed suit. These are all important squash today, but they are not yet heirlooms that have passed the test of time.
Planting techniques are essentially the same for all pumpkins and squash. They should be grown on hills about 3 to 4 feet apart, depending on the leaf size — large-leafed varieties should be farther apart. For better results, start the seedlings indoors and transplant the strongest ones into large pots. Let the plants grow and become well established in the pots, then set them out on hills as soon as the weather is warm. If the plants are large and growing vigorously before the end of June when the squash beetles come into season, they will better survive the attacks of this insect.
Many of the vining squash will yield larger fruit if they are pruned and only three or four fruits are allowed to develop on each plant. The bush varieties are the most prolific and will produce all season if the fruit is harvested continuously. Squash and pumpkins are heavy feeders and should be fertilized at least three times during the season. Rotate the squash from year to year so that they are grown on the same ground only every four years.
Preventing Squash Beetles
The squash beetle is the plague of all gardens with squash, cucumbers, melons, and pumpkins. A rank-smelling relative of the bedbug, these beetles feed at night by puncturing the leaves, thus causing them to wilt within a matter of hours. If the damage is extensive, the plants will decline and eventually die, or at the very least the fruit will be small and crabbed. During the day the beetles hide on the ground under the vines and can be destroyed individually. Orange eggs are laid in patches under the leaves. If the egg sacks are crushed between the fingers on a daily basis during mating season, this will greatly reduce the beetle population and minimize damage. The hatchlings are gray and white and move in swarms. They are easy to destroy with insecticidal soap, since they do not have a hard shell at that stage. The adults hibernate over the winter and reappear in June. They hide under dead leaves or in compost heaps. If the compost heaps are near the garden, they should be turned over a few times during the winter to expose the beetles to freezing temperatures and thus kill them.
Squash varieties of the same species will cross and therefore should be separated by at least a quarter of a mile. Otherwise, hand pollination is the only method of assuring seed purity. Another method is to plant squash at three-week intervals, harvesting and destroying the plants of the same species in order to let the next planting flower and come to fruit. I have found this to be quite effective in my garden, where large production is less important than variety of crops and seed purity. Furthermore, by destroying the vines of the early plantings, space is freed for other vegetables.
To save seed, allow the fruit to ripen on the vine until the plants begin to die. Choose only the finest specimens with the best varietal characteristics for seed. Harvest the fruit and store in a cool, dry place. Further aging in storage raises seed viability. The seeds may be removed when the fruit is required for cooking. Scrape out the seeds and wash them in a colander to remove the placenta, the stringy flesh surrounding the seeds. Spread the seeds on screens or paper towels to dry. Let them dry 2 to 3 weeks, then store in dated, airtight jars in a cool, dark closet. When properly stored, squash seed will remain viable for about six years.
For the kitchen garden in regions where summers are cool and short, this squash is among the very best, equal to the Hubbard. It is illustrated in the Album Vilmorin (1877, 28) in all its gaudy pinkness as the courge de l’Ohio. Oddly, Ohio has nothing to do with its origin. This squash was introduced to the gardening public by John M. Ives of Salem, Massachusetts, who exhibited it at Faneuil Hall in Boston in September 1834. It soon became one of the most popular squashes of its kind, not just in the United States but in England and France as well. Ives claimed to have obtained seed from a cross brought to Buffalo, New York, by Indians from the west. On the other hand, the Year-Book of Agriculture (1856, 330) detected a cross created from Commodore Porter’s Valparaiso squash, while Fearing Burr (1865, 203–4) remained convinced that the autumnal marrow was related to the Hubbard. What is clear is that no one gave much credit to Ives’s claim — he probably developed and stabilized the hybrid himself. When his squash was recrossed about 1853 with a pure Valparaiso, it produced a new variety called Stetson’s Hybrid or Wilder. That cross was created by A. W. Stetson of Braintree, Massachusetts, and named for the Honorable Marshall P. Wilder, a well-known patron of agriculture at the time.
The autumnal marrow is a late-summer squash that fruits on vines some 14 to 16 feet l
When saving seed, it is important to look for signs of crossing, since this variety degenerates easily. A thickening of the skin and a green ring on the blossom end are certain evidence of impure seed. Seed from such fruit must be discarded as seed stock but may be reserved as food. French seed for the courge de l’Ohio consistently produces finer-fleshed fruit than its American counterparts, but unfortunately that seed is difficult to obtain.
For the lovers of pumpkin pie, this is indeed a first-class squash. The deep carrot orange of the flesh holds up well under cooking, and while not as sweet as some heirloom varieties, the flavor can be improved with a little molasses or honey. The squash that has been in storage for some length of time tends to lose moisture, which makes it better suited for pumpkin bread, pumpkin butter, and the kind of pumpkin pastes that blend so nicely with corn and bean dishes.
Also known as Mexican Banana and Plymouth Rock, this attractive variety was introduced about 1893. Its unusual shape and very smooth, almost velvety skin make it stand out anywhere groups of squash are displayed. The original variety was bluish gray with light orange striping. In storage, this color changes to a creamy pink. After the turn of this century, Aggeler & Musser, a Los Angeles seed firm, selected out three separate colors from the original introduction: a solid bluish gray, a solid yellow, and an orange-pink with flesh-colored stripes. The yellow selection has gradually superseded the others, no doubt because its color lives up to the varietal name, which makes for easier marketing.
The banana squash is much more popular in the West and on the West Coast than in the East, although I have not met with any peculiar problems with our climate. The orange-pink selection is presently more common in the Middle States, probably because it is raised by a number of Mennonite farmers in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Ohio. The distinctive color is very close to that of the courge de l’Ohio, the French version of the autumnal marrow squash.
The vines of the banana squash are 12 to 15 feet long and closely resemble those of the Hubbard, which means that they require considerable room. The fruit ripens about the same time as the Essex Hybrid, and in my garden, that means early to mid-September. The fruit measures anywhere from 18 to 20 inches long, roughly 5 to 6 inches in diameter, and weighs 10 to 12 pounds. The flesh is yellowish orange, fine textured, and dry. For culinary purposes, I think it is best steamed.
Although this squash has known precedents among the Indians of North America, at least in early colonial times, there are no firm references to it until the 1820s. Mary Randolph included a recipe for cooking winter crookneck squash in her Virginia House-Wife (1824, 135), which certainly indicates that the squash was already well known. Yet it was not introduced commercially under this name until 1834, when it was first sold by Boston seedsman Charles H. Hovey (1810–1887). It should not be confused with the large flesh-colored crookneck squash that is still available in many parts of the country today.
The fruit of this variety ranges in size from 10 to 12 inches in length and is no more than 6 inches in diameter. The skin is smooth, creamy yellow, and covered with bloom, like a plum. Handling the squash will leave fingerprints. The vines are not large and trail close to the ground, with small, dark green leaves. Thus, this is an ideal squash for small gardens. The flesh of the fruit is reddish salmon, and of very good quality, which is one reason why this vegetable has remained perennially popular. It also stores extremely well. I have had some in my pantry that have lasted two to three years without noticeable deterioration.
A large tan pumpkin with a distinctive moschata stem is depicted in a painting by Lucas Van Valkenborch (c. 1530–1597) in the Kunsthistoriches Museum at Vienna. This may be the earliest depiction of a true cheese pumpkin, although Matthias de l’Obel included a “pompion” in his Plantarum seu Stirpium Icones (1591) with the correct shape. In America, the cheese pumpkin appears with definite documentation in Bernard M’Mahon’s 1815 seed catalog, although he misidentified it as a Cucurbita pepo. Even then, it was accepted as widespread in the Middle States well before the Revolution. Landreth Cheese (still available today under this name) and Mammoth Cheese are considered synonyms for this variety. The tan cheese pumpkin that I grow is also synonymous and is probably the same as the buff pie pumpkin of the nineteenth century. It resembles the tan pumpkin of Van Valkenborch.
The authors of the Vegetables of New York: The Cucurbits (1937, 52) suggested that the name was due to the shape of the squash and its resemblance to an old-style cheese box. Few of these vegetables resemble cheese boxes. Only one in my collection, the Appoquinnamink Cheese Pumpkin, found growing in a remote area of southern Delaware, comes close, and it is shown in the drawing. The color is bronze-gray, with blue-gray lines in the ribs. This is thought to be a seventeenth-century strain brought into the Delaware Valley from Jamaica; all of the cheese pumpkins are assumed by horticulturists to be of West Indian origin. In fact, one of the early nineteenth-century names for the cheese pumpkin was West Indian pumpkin.
More likely, the name of this variety stems from its shape, which vaguely resembles an old wheel of cheese — like the “cheeses” or seed pods of the marshmallow — coupled with the very old practice of making pumpkin cheese from squashes that do not store well, which is certainly true of this one. Pumpkin cheese, or what is now known as pumpkin butter, was a rural poverty food in the Middle Colonies. In the fall, the pumpkins were cooked down to a thick paste, often with watermelon juice, to yield a preserve that was dark brown in color and somewhat sweet, like unsugared apple butter.
All of the cheese pumpkins are characterized by deep salmon-orange flesh and trailing vines up to 18 feet in length. The leaves are blotched with grayish green; the veins are gray. The fruit is generally medium in size, no more than 14 inches in diameter, lobed, and flatter than common field pumpkins, weighing from 10 to 15 pounds. The skin color is usually dark cream or tan and very smooth. There are a number of subvarieties, most of them quite rare. The musquée de Provence (with a dark green rind and a truly distinctive variety) and the Cutchogue Flat Cheese are still available through seed-saving networks.
This squash has undergone a recent revival, for it is now found in many supermarkets during the early fall. Not many consumers (or gardeners for that matter) realize that this is an heirloom squash more than a hundred years old: it was introduced in 1894. It was promoted commercially for many years by Peter Henderson & Company of New York and remained popular into the 1920s. It was also known as Bohemian, Sweet Potato, and Ward’s Individual, but these names have now fallen out of use.
The squash lives up to its present name because it is delicate in both shape and flavor. The fruit itself is small, usually 8 to 10 inches long, thin skinned, and waxy feeling when touched. The flesh is a deep orange-yellow, fine textured and sweet. The dark green markings on the skin turn a soft orange in storage; the cream ground color sometimes changes to a bright yellow. This color shift toward yellow is something that has developed in the past few decades, for the original variety remained a cream color throughout its storage life.
The Delicata Squash grows on 8-to-10-foot trailing vines with small silvery green leaves. The vines are prolific producers of fruit, and therefore this squash is ideal for small gardens. The vines can even be trained up wooden trellises much like cucumbers. My only complaint against this squash is that it tends to spoil quickly in storage, owing I think to its thin skin. It keeps best in a dry pantry where the temperature is maintained between 45 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
One reason for the renewed popularity of this squash is that when it is cut in half lengthwise, it makes two single portions, and restaurants have devised many recipes for stuffing and baking this vegetable. Furthermore, the seeds are easy to remove, and the squash cooks quickly in a microwave oven, all of which contributes to its popularity with chefs.
This is probably the most famous of all the American winter squashes and one of the most popular. It was introduced commercially in the late 1840s by James J. H. Gregory of Marblehead, Massachusetts. According to Gregory’s own account, he obtained seed about 1842 from a Captain Knott Martin, who had grown it in Marblehead for many years. Since the vegetable was brought to Gregory’s attention by a Mrs. Elizabeth Hubbard, it was named in her honor. The Gregorys claimed that the squash had been introduced into Marblehead from Boston in 1798. However, because they provided several conflicting accounts about its origin, horticulturists have always remained doubtful about their documentation and have suspected that the Gregorys had a hand in improving the squash prior to releasing it in the form we know today.
What is known for certain about the Hubbard squash is that it originated in the West Indies or South America, for it belongs to a larger family of squashes from that region. I should also add that in a Philadelphia still life painting from the early 1820s, there is a large squash resembling a Hubbard, with warty skin that is dark green with bright yellow patches. This may represent the Hubbard squash at a stage closer to its original South American form.
The original Hubbard squash matures in 115 days on trailing vines up to 15 feet long. The leaves are lobed and somewhat large. The fruit, if it is growing true, should measure from 12 to 15 inches in length and no more than 10 inches in circumference. The maximum weight is generally between 9 and 12 pounds, but often less than that. Many markets prefer the smaller ones, since they are easier to sell. The skin of the squash is rough, wrinkled, and warty, with a prominent corky button on the blossom end. The skin color should be a dark ivy green, often with a few pale green stripes. In storage, the color normally changes to olive. The dull yellow flesh is fine, firm, moderately sweet, and excellently suited to cookery.
This old original strain has been crossed with many squash to create new varieties. Many of the specimens that come out of the fields show deterioration of seed purity, so it is not advisable to trust seed from produce stands. Two popular subvarietics have been created out of the original Hubbard: the Blue Hubbard and the Golden Hubbard.
The Blue Hubbard was introduced in 1909, originally under the name Symmes Blue Hubbard, after S. S. Symmes, a gardener from Cliftondale, Massachusetts, who worked for the James J. H. Gregory seed company for many years. It is believed to be a cross between Middleton Blue or Marblehead and the original Hubbard.
Olive Squash or Courge Olive Squash
This may be considered the French equivalent of the Hubbard squash, and from a botanical standpoint, the two are closely related. The true origin of the Olive Squash is unknown, although Vilmorin was the first to offer it in Europe. W. Atlee Burpee of Philadelphia began offering seed in 1884, and Tuisco Greiner (1890, 257) listed it as a variety recommended for kitchen gardens. Its popularity in this country has been mixed, doubtless due to competition from so many other squashes better suited to our cookery. Perhaps it is just the dull color of the skin that Americans are not accustomed to, yet each squash yields an abundance of beautiful, thick, yellow flesh that is both sweet and flavorful. It makes excellent puddings and preserves.
The shape is similar to that of the courge de l’Ohio, but more slender and tapered at both ends. The French claim that the squash resembles an unripe olive (hence the name); if so, then a very young olive must be intended. None of the specimens I have grown ever looked like olives (I have even used French seed), but the skin is indeed close in color to the camouflage green used by the U.S. Army, and this might be construed as an olive shade.
Actually, the squash is quite striking in the garden because the vine leaves are very pale green, which creates a nice visual contrast. Furthermore, Greiner was correct in recommending this variety for small gardens because the vines trail close to the ground and are not long and tangled like the Hubbard. The fruit is also small in scale, measuring no more than a foot long and 6 inches in diameter. The squash can weigh anywhere from 6 to 10 pounds, but weight can suffer measurably if the growing season is dry. These squash must be kept well watered.