As an inexperienced gardener years ago, I used to have problems sorting out the squashes. They were just a jumble of different types and varieties, and what I grew was often the result of a random selection from whatever seed catalogue was handy.
After more than 40 years of growing squashes, however, I have finally figured them out. In the end, it was just a matter of first defining what they are, then classifying the different species and finally grouping them according to culinary use and fruit shape. Yes, it was a tedious and pedantic exercise, but likewise, it did focus the mind and put these valuable vegetables in both a gardening and culinary context.
Squashes are frost-sensitive, heat-loving plants native to the Americas. Grown mainly for their edible fruit, they belong to the Cucurbita genus of the Cucurbitaceae family, which also includes melons and cucumbers.
There are five domesticated species of Cucurbita, distinguished from each other by differences in their fruit stalks, plant stems, leaves and seeds:
- C. argyrosperma (formerly mixta) has a corky, hard fruit stalk and is a rarity that seldom, if ever, appears in British gardens and seed catalogues.
- C. ficifolia, sometimes called Malabar gourd, is also known as fig-leaf gourd due to the shape of its leaves. It is a relatively cold-tolerant species with fruit that look like watermelons, but have a stringy, flavourless flesh
- C. pepo is distinguished by fruits with hard, distinctively-angled fruit stalks. It is the most popular Cucurbita species in British gardens and includes summer squashes, most pumpkins and a large proportion of winter squashes.
- C. moshata produce fruit with stalks that are hard and weakly-angled. The most heat needy species, it includes the buff-coloured butternut winter squashes, renowned for their eating quality.
- C. maxima fruit have round, soft and frequently corky fruit stalks. The culinary value of some cultivars such as ‘Crown Prince’ is outstanding, and the species also includes the giant pumpkins, possessing probably the largest fruit on the planet.
Squashes can be further divided into two culinary types, depending on both the maturity of the fruit and the time of the year they are eaten.
Grown mostly for the starchy flesh of the fruit, winter squashes are cultivated through the summer and harvested in the early autumn, when the fruit are fully mature. At this point, the fruit develop hard seeds as well as a tough, inedible rind that allows them to be stored into the winter, when they provide a welcome relief form the sulphur-based alliums and brassica.
Winter squashes can be categorised according to their fruit shape, though not all cultivars fit neatly into a specific category. Some of the more distinctive and popular ones include the following:
- Pumpkin (C. pepo and C. maxima). A contentious category that in the narrow sense includes orange- (and sometimes white-) coloured fruit of C. pepo and C. maxima that are flattened, round or oval in shape. Popular for Halloween Jack-o-lanterns, some of the bigger ones are used in giant vegetable contests. Others such as ‘Baby Bear’ are not only ideal for pies but also produce ‘naked’ seeds that are excellent for eating. Do remember, though that ‘pumpkin’ has a dual meaning, and the West Indians and Australians use the name for any variety of winter squash.
Acorn (C. pepo). Looking vaguely like an acorn, the smallish fruit are somewhat oval-shaped and ribbed. The skin is normally dark green, thoughin some cultivars it can be either ivory, orange or even multi-coloured as in ‘Harlequin’ (awarded an ‘Award of Garden Merit by the Royal Horticulture Society).
- Buttercup (C. maxima). Fruit are round and – to varying degrees – flattened, with a protruding ‘button’ on the blossom end. Skin is normally green, though it is orange in some cultivars.
- Butternut (C. moshata). The elongated fruit are sometimes cylindrical-shaped, but normally have a neck of solid flesh that enlarges into a bulb where the seed cavity is located. The skin is coloured a light brown or tan.
- Gem (C. pepo). The fruit are dark green, roundish and about the size of a cricket ball.
- Hubbard (C. maxima). Depending on the cultivar, the fruit are sometimes teardrop-shaped with a flat blossom end, but are usually oval-shaped, tapering at both ends to form short necks. Skin colour is either blue, green or orange.
- Kabocha (C. maxima). Japanese-style squash similar in shape to butternut, but without the ‘button’. Skin can be orange, grey or green.
- Turban (C. maxima). The fruit have an exaggerated enlargement at their blossom end, supposedly giving them the appearance of a turban.
For details about growing squashes click here.
Listed in the category: Beginners' GuidessWinter and summer squashes
With tags: buttercup, butternut, Cuccurbita moshata, Cucurbita, Cucurbita ficifolia, Cucurbita maxima, Cucurbita pepo, growing squashes, Kabocha, little gem, pumpkins, seeds, turks turban, vegetable seeds, Winter squash