The History and Uses of Winter Squash
The hard-shelled squash species are uniquely American. The earliest natives revered them and gave them the honor of being one of the Three Sisters. Beans and corn completed the trio and without those foods for sustenance many ancient peoples would have ceased to exist.
The Three Sisters were vital to many civilizations. The corn and the beans made a complete protein, the squash supplied beta carotene, Omega 3's and Potassium. Whole communities could survive on these alone if game and other foods were scarce. They were also one of the first Companion Plantings, each contributing to the growth and well-being of the others. The corn supplied support for the beans to climb on and shade for the squash plants during the heat of the day. The squash plants large leaves shaded the ground, prevented weeds and deterred hungry wildlife that didn’t like to walk through the fuzzy vines. The beans fixed nitrogen in the soil to feed the corn and the squash.
The European conquerors carried the squash back across the Atlantic and many varieties were created around the Mediterranean Basin. Winter squash never caught on in the more northern parts of Europe though, as the climate was too cool and the season did not last long enough to properly grow them. France and Spain are two European countries which have embraced the squash and raised its cultivation to an art form with many unique varieties springing from that area. Wonderful varieties have been developed in Australia also, as the climate there is quite hospitable to raising winter squash.
Most people ask; "What is the difference between a winter squash and a pumpkin?" A pumpkin is just another hard-shelled winter squash. And what makes a winter squash different from a summer squash you ask? It’s simply in the time of year which they are eaten. The early American settlers gave them those designations. Summer squash are soft-skinned vegetables which grew quickly and were eaten soon after harvest. Winter squash grew the thick, hard rinds that made them suitable for storing through the long winters when fresh vegetables were a precious commodity.
Winter squash comes in many shapes, sizes, textures and flavors. Chances are, there will be one variety out there that will suit your family.
Here are a few popular ones.
The 'Waltham Butternut' is a lovely smooth-skinned squash with a meaty texture. It is prolific and easy to grow. It keeps well in a cool, dark storage area and it’s small enough that 1 squash will feed an average family, with maybe just a little left over.
The 'Blue Hubbard' is a huge, heavy squash that requires more than just a paring knife to open it. The thick rind needs a small hatchet or saw to cut it open, but it will keep well into spring with nothing much more than a dry, cool spot. Not for the ‘Squash Novice’ as it occasionally will reach over 30 pounds, and 1 squash feeds a small army. The flesh is smooth and not stringy, somewhat on the dry side, but quite pleasing.
'Carnival' is a variety of acorn wquash found in many supermarkets and is a great selection for a two person meal. Use the squash as the main meal instead of meat, stuffing the halves with a seasoned rice mixture. Each person being served their own personal, edible bowl. For a simple side dish, simply drizzle with butter and brown sugar before baking.
Plant winter squash after all danger of frost is passed and the ground has warmed. Site your squash bed in an area that gets 6 to 8 hours of sun each day. It is customary to plant them in raised ‘hills’. This keeps the roots warmer and drier than planting in furrows. Winter squash prefer well drained soil that isn’t constantly wet, although they do like lots of water to produce the fruits.
Make sure you give your squash vines plenty of room, they can spread and cover an area more than ten feet square. There are varieties with semi-vining qualities that are shorter and some of the minis are available in bush varieties too.
Winter squash have a few pests that must be watched for. Squash vine borers are reddish colored moths that lay their eggs at the base of the plants and the larvae bore inside the stems to destroy the vines. Wrapping the base of the vines in foil or applying an approved insecticide to the base of the vines will help control them. Do not spray the leaves or the flowers, as you can be killing the bees that are necessary to pollination.
Squash bugs are a sucking insect that form colonies. They will suck the juices from the leaves and fruit. It’s best to hunt their orange eggs laid on the undersides of leaves and mash them. Squash Bugs are difficult to get rid of once they become adults.
Winter squash varieties are diverse, and have a history that has outlived whole civilizations. They are nutritious and can be stored for long periods of time. Preparation is simple and many recipes are available. The large vines are attractive in the garden. If you are adventurous and want to grow a vegetable with a colorful history, plant a few winter squash.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 23, 2007.)