By Sheryl Joy, NS/S Seed Distribution Coordinator. Published on October 28, 2014.
So what’s the trick?? All squash grows in the summer time! But squash terminology is undoubtedly a bit confusing. It’s not unusual for us here at NS/S to get questions like "What sort of winter squash should I plant in Phoenix in November?" But winter squash isn’t like winter wheat; even in Phoenix it doesn’t grow well in the cool of the year. All squash plants need the heat and long sunny days of summer to be productive. So why do we use this terminology?
Some squash varieties have been selected for drier flesh, harder skins, and longer-term storage capability. These are called winter squash because even though they are grown in summer and harvested in fall, if stored correctly they can keep without refrigeration for months, even all winter long. Because they keep so well, they were an extremely important staple food for people when refrigeration was not available. Not everyone was happy about this: the diary of a pioneer woman lamented: "Oh dear, how can I tell it? Squash again for breakfast!" The so-called winter squashes include fruits from a number of different Cucurbita species, such as pumpkins, butternuts, acorn, turbans and hubbards.
Other varieties (like zucchini, crooknecks, and pattypans) have been selected for thin, tender skin and juicier flesh and are commonly harvested young and eaten as soon as possible after harvest. These we know as summer squash. They don’t store for long, and if you’ve ever discovered a blimp-sized zucchini or a hard warty yellow crookneck hidden under the leaves in your garden, you know they are not as appetizing when they mature.
Young green ha:l (Cucurbita argyrosperma).
Our modern agricultural system has developed and segregated these types so we think of them completely differently. But the older landrace varieties of squash in the NS/S collection are often harvested and eaten throughout their life cycle: eaten as a summer squash when small and tender, and stored and cooked as winter squash when mature. The wonderful book From I'itoi's Garden tells how the Tohono O’odham people traditionally grow and use their ha:l squash, which is a cushaw type. They treasure the ha:l ma:mad (baby ha:l), picking it when "no bigger than an avocado", to sauté and enjoy in its young tender state. But they are careful to leave half the squashes on the vine to grow into huge mature ha:l, which they can bake or boil, or slice and dry for long term storage. The seeds of these varieties are also especially prized for roasting.
The NS/S farm is growing out the popular O’odham ha:l squash this year, so we should be able to distribute next spring. But most any of the squashes in the NS/S seed bank collection could be used in this same way, because they are edible at both the early and late stages of growth. Any of the cushaws can be eaten both ways. (Note that we also carry some more modern heirloom varieties that are not part of the seed bank, like the yellow crookneck summer squash; to find the landraces, look for the tag "NS/S Collection" when browsing varieties on our website.)
Mature ha:l, harvested at the NS/S Conservation Farm in Patagonia, AZ. Note the burly pedicel, the part connecting the fruit to the mother plant.
And speaking of eating at different stages, don’t forget to try the squash blossoms too! When your plants produce all those great big male blossoms before the female blossoms start to appear, don’t despair - harvest some, stuff with cheese, dip in a light batter and sauté … yum! Or simply slice up and sprinkle on a salad to add some beautiful color and a bit of sweetness.