Squashes and Pumpkins – Diverse and American

By Staff
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It is winter across North America and gardens are frozen. Yet we eat vegetables, not all of them imported from warmer regions. Squashes are traditional winter vegetables, with dozens of distinctive varieties.

The word squash is from the Narragansett tribe of Rhode Island. European settlers had never seen squashes before and had no name for them. (All squashes and pumpkins, in the cucumber family, Cucurbitaceae, are native to the Americas. Melons and cucumbers are from Eurasian.) In 1634, Roger Williams was the first to write about them, recording that the Narragansett word, askútasquash, described “Vine apples, which the English from them call squashes, about the bignesse of Apples of several colours, a sweet light wholesome refreshing.” (p. 103). The verb squash, to crush flat, comes from a different root, the Old French esquasser, related to quash. But English also has an obsolete word “squash.” It meant an unripe pea pod and Shakespeare used it insultingly in “Winter’s Tale ” This Kernell, this squash, this Gentleman…” (1623, i. ii. 162). I don’t suppose being called a squash in the modern usage would be much better.

At the grocery store, squashes are divided into summer squashes and winter squashes. (And pumpkins. Pumpkins are a hard-to-define group of winter squashes, generally but not always, big, orange and ribbed.) Summer squashes, called vegetable marrows in Britain, are immature fruits, harvested while the rind and the seeds inside are soft, for example zucchinis, crooknecks, and yellow squashes. They have to be eaten shortly after they are harvested, “in summer”. Winter squashes have tough exteriors and hard, ripe seeds. Examples are butternut squashes, acorn squashes, delicatas, and hubbard squashes. The hard rind allows storing winter squash and pumpkins to eat “in winter”.

Botanically, there is no match between summer and winter squashes and the plant species. Five different Cucurbita species are our squashes and pumpkins. Most summer squashes are the species Cucurbita pepo but some are C. ficifolia. The winter squashes and pumpkins can be any of the four species Cucurbita pepo, C. argyrosperma, C. maxima, and C. moschata.

What happened was: people. People in different places bred squashes to be soft and green or hard and yellow, from whatever species they had available.

Cucurbita species are native across the Americas and were domesticated long ago. Cucurbita pepo was grown in Mexican gardens 10,000 years ago, making it one of the oldest crops. The other species were domesticated more than 5,000 years ago. Some were domesticated more than once; apparently Cucurbita pepo was brought into cultivation independently in the southeastern U.S., one a handful of plants domesticated within the United States, not borrowed from farther south. People traded squashes all over the Americas. Despite being related, Cucurbita species do not cross, so a garden in Mexico 3,000 years ago might have grown one species for seeds, another as a summer squash, and a third for pumpkins. Then came Europeans, who encountered squashes from New England to southern Chile. They took seeds all over the world and people everywhere started growing squashes and then reshaped the fruits to their taste. So we have red or white or green squashes that get very large or are eaten while they are small, long and skinny or round, with or without ribs. and more. Some varieties are grown for seeds or not to be eaten at all (Halloween pumpkins). 

As this success story suggests, squashes are easy to grow. The big vines quickly cover the ground with large, richly-green leaves. All are frost-intolerant, so must be planted outside after the last frost and will be killed by the first. Some varieties ripen in about 50 days (summer squash) but more varieties are available the longer the growing season. 

All squashes and pumpkins are monoecious; that is, each plant produces two kinds of flowers, one that makes pollen (“male”) and another without pollen but that develops into the fruits (“female”). In their native range–which includes the southern United States for Cucurbita pepo–there are native bees, squash bees (Peponapis and Xenoglossa), that pollinate the squashes, but other small bees, including honey bees, love the flowers and pollinate them too. 

The flowers are beautiful, usually yellow, sometimes orangy or white, and they are edible. They are gorgeous in a summer salad, though if you eat very many, you won’t have squashes.

The seeds of both pumpkins and squashes are roasted and eaten. They contain antioxidants, magnesium (important for bone health) and nutritious oils. I’ve roasted seeds from Halloween pumpkins; they’re good but not as good as seeds from pumpkins bred to provide seeds. Pepitas are squash seeds from special varieties with no hard shell on the seed. All the seeds provide a tasty, healthy food. 

Winter squashes and pumpkins, readily available in winter, are excellent foods, full of vitamins and good sources of fiber. They are recommended as antioxidants and for heart-healthy and diabetic diets. 

Eat winter squashes and their seeds now and grow some next summer, if only for their dramatic flowers. 


Easton, E. Types of Squash, Summer and Winter Squash http://whatscookingamerica.net/squash.htm accessed 9/5/14

“squash” Oxford English Dictionary online accessed 9/5/14

Simpson, B.B. and M. Orgazaly. 2014 Plants in Our World. 2nd ed. McGraw-Hill, New York.

Smartt, J. and N. W. Simmonds. 1995.  Evolution of Crop Plants. 2nd ed. Longman, London.

Smith, B. D. 2006. Eastern North America as an independent center of plant domestication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Aug 2006, 103 (33) 12223-12228.

van Wyck,  B-E. 2005. Food Plants of the World. Timber Press, Portland OR.

Williams, Roger. 1643. A key to the language of America, Gregory Dexter publisher, London (p 103) https://tinyurl.com/j7xpvvc  Accessed 12/21/19.

Winter Squash. The Nutrition Source. The Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/food-features/winter-squash/ Accessed 12/21/19

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