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.”
To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom pumpkin varieties, use our Custom Seed and Plant Finder. Check out our collection of articles on growing and harvesting heirloom vegetables in Gardening With Heirloom Vegetables.
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.
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 long. Fruit begins to ripen in August and will continue until frost, even though this is considered a 100-day squash. It is ideal for planting under corn. The skin is eggshell-thin and easily damaged if handled roughly. But the flesh is particularly fine in texture, and if the fruit is gathered before frost and stored carefully in a cool, dry pantry, it will keep well into the following spring. The fruit is essentially top-shaped like the Hubbard, with individual fruits weighing from 8 to 9 pounds each. The skin of the European strains are smooth and bluish pink, whereas the specimens depicted in American garden books of the period show not only a pebbled roughness to the skin but also a bright orange color. It is thought that the original cross was pink but that American seedsmen selected subsequent fruit toward the (then) more desirable orange shade. In shape and size, at least, the squash closely resembles Marblehead, which was introduced in 1873 by the seed house of James J. H. Gregory of Marblehead, Massachusetts. Marblehead has a gray-blue skin.
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.
The Golden Hubbard, which is really an orange-red, was developed by J. J. Harrison of Storr’s & Harrison Company, Painsville, Ohio. It was introduced by D. M. Ferry & Company of Detroit in 1898. The Golden Hubbard should produce a dark green or olive-green patch on the blossom end, an indication that the seed is growing true to type.
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.
Like the summer crookneck, this squash originated among the native peoples of the eastern United States, for it was known from Virginia to New England by a number of local names in various Indian languages. Both the yellow and the white varieties date from pre-Columbian times, although the white has gradually supplanted the yellow over the past century and a half. In England, this squash is known as the custard marrow, in France as the patisson panaché.
The old name cymlin or cymling was given to this squash in the seventeenth century, owing to its similarity in size and shape to the English simnal cake, a fluted cake made during Lent. One of the oldest depictions of the pattypan squash appeared in Matthias de l’Obel’s Plantarum seu Stirpium Icones (1591). The fruit looks very much like the pattypans of today. The fact that this East Coast squash appeared in European botanical works prior to white settlement in the region suggests intriguing precontact seed exchanges that have not been given much notice by plant historians.
Aside from the yellow and white bush varieties, there was also an old warty yellow variety that grew on trailing vines. It was given the now archaic scientific designation Cucurbita verrucosa, and appeared under that name on Bernard M’Mahon’s seed lists as early as 1806. It is believed to have been a cross between the yellow pattypan and the summer crookneck squashes, dating from the middle part of the eighteenth century. It was well known in American horticultural circles by the 1790s.
The plants are bushy, with large leaves on 30-inch stems that require plenty of space between the hills. The fruit matures in about 55 days and produces profusely until frost. Constant harvesting will promote a continuous supply of new squash. The fruit can be eaten young or when light green, or harvested when it forms a hard shell. This can be pared off with a potato peeler.
The mature fruit varies in size, some measuring 7, others as much as 9 inches across, and often weighing 7 or 8 pounds. The skin color of the white variety is dull white and somewhat velvety; the yellow variety is more of a waxy lemon color. For seed-saving purposes, let a hill produce mature fruit and leave the fruit on the plants until they begin to die. It is important that the seed be allowed to mature in the squash to ensure better rates of germination. The mature squash can be stored in a cool dry pantry and will keep for several months.
The Improved Variegated Custard Marrow was mentioned by Fearing Burr (1865, 202) — but not in flattering terms — and illustrated by Vilmorin (1885, 266). It appeared in the Album Vilmorin (1858, 7) as the patisson jaune et panaché and is believed to date from the early 1850s. It is a French cross between Yellow Mandan and the white pattypan squash, a cross that I have successfully recreated in my garden several times. The fruit and plants are much smaller than other pattypans. In storage, the squash turns a rich lemon yellow. It is best harvested in the green state and prepared like zucchini.
The earliest known American recipe for pattypan squash appeared in The Virginia House-Wife (1824, 134). In that recipe, the squash was boiled and then pureed. The following recipe, from Mrs. Charles H. Gibson’s Maryland and Virginia Cook Book (1894, 72–73), was also typical.
Gut them in quarters, wash and boil them in salted water until tender, when done put them into a cullender and press out all the water. While warm add a small piece of butter, and season with a little more salt and cream. Put them in a covered dish, and before sending to table sprinkle a little black pepper. These are very nice fried like eggplant.
Like the banana squash, which originated in Mexico, Pike’s Peak is brown-seeded and therefore is definitely of Native American origin. However, its early history is folkloric. It was said to have been raised since the 1840s by an elderly woman in Van Dinam, Iowa. She had lived most of her life in Missouri, the presumption being that her seed came directly from Missouri Indians. More likely the seed came from Mexico, and the squash developed its peculiar varietal characteristics in the United States.
For many years, the squash was well known in Missouri, Arkansas, and Iowa, where seed remained in circulation among truck farmers. In 1887 the squash was released commercially by Hiram Sibley & Company, a Rochester, New York, seed firm. It is considered one of the most distinctive squashes of its type and was given considerable notice in the American Garden (1888, 62; 1889, 181).
The vines attain a length of 12 to 15 feet and closely resemble those of the Hubbard. The squash ripens in 120 days, the same time as the Hubbard, but the fruit size is more like the Quaker pie pumpkin, about I foot in length and 9 inches in diameter. The fruit skin is smoother than the Blue Hubbard and Marblehead, yet almost the same color. In storage, the skin changes color to a pinkish buff, somewhat akin to the blue banana squash. The flesh is fine, moist, and pale orange in color. It is an ideal storage squash because the flesh becomes drier and richer, thus reaching its best stage for culinary uses after January 1.
This pumpkin is known by a variety of names in American seed catalogs, perhaps the most common being Red Etampes, or more recently, Cinderella. It should not be confused with the French butter pumpkin or potiron jaune gros, which was introduced into England in the 1820s and the United States in the early 1850s. It was golden yellow in color. The Red Etampes is a bright brick red. On the other hand, Red Etampes was developed out of the old butter pumpkin, so the two varieties are closely related. The vines of both are nearly identical, except for leaf coloring.
W. Atlee Burpee of Philadelphia is credited with introducing this squash to American gardeners in 1883. It was cultivated in France almost fifty years prior to that, and proved extremely popular in Paris. There are two variant forms, one with smooth skin, which is considered the true type, the other with cracks and netting that is considered a partial reversion to its butter pumpkin parent. Regardless, I have grown both forms and have observed that they produce a large number of deformed fruit. Among some of my Mennonite friends who raise this squash for market, an entire field may yield only a dozen perfect specimens. The reason for this is not clear, although I suspect that seed purity has been compromised over the years, particularly in areas where the giraumon turban is also under cultivation.
The fruits ripen in 130 days on vigorous vines reaching 18 to 20 feet in length, without a question a true field pumpkin. The fruit often measures 18 inches in diameter, is extremely flat and somewhat sunken at the stem end, and weighs 30 to 35 pounds. The blossom scar leaves a small button of corklike material, usually surrounded by a ring of the same growth, one of the telling characteristics of this vegetable. The flesh is thick and a deep yellow color, but the flavor is lacking. The seed mass is difficult to remove. I recommend a grapefruit spoon.
This squash was popular in Paris during the nineteenth century because chefs discovered that it made an excellent base for soups, the flavor being so mild that it did not overpower other ingredients. Furthermore, it yielded a thick stock of a decidedly yellow color rather than an orange-red one, which was considered more visually pleasing. Jules Gouffé’s soup recipe in Le Livre de cuisine (1868, 48–49) is typical for the period.
Take 2 pounds of yellow pumpkin; take out the seeds, and pare off 1/2 inch of the rind; cut it in pieces 1 1/2 inch square; put in a stewpan with 1 ounce of butter, 1 pinch of salt. 1 ounce of sugar, and 1/2 pint of water. Simmer for an hour and a half, and drain in a colander. Put back in the stewpan and add 1 1/2 pint of boiled milk — otherwise, if unboiled, the milk is liable to curdle. Boil for a minute and pour in the soup tureen in which 1/2 ounce of bread has been sliced. Serve.
The Quaker Pie Pumpkin was introduced commercially in 1888 by W. Atlee Burpee & Company of Philadelphia. It had been growing for several years before that in the garden of a Quaker family living in Washington County, New York, hence the name. This squash never gained the widespread popularity of other fall storing varieties, and thus has always remained rather rare. Yet, unlike many squash of this type, it produces fruits with little variability, a feature that should recommend it commercially. In fact the fruit is small, no more than a foot long and perhaps 8 inches in diameter across the middle. In spite of their small size, these squashes are dense, weighing from 10 to 12 pounds, and there is not a lot of waste.
Perhaps part of the reason for its lack of popularity lies in its color. The skin is creamy white, overlaid with a darker cream lace pattern not often shown in old illustrations. The flesh of this squash is also white and very fine-grained. When cooked and pureed, it resembles mashed turnip in appearance. Unfortunately, in the Vegetables of New York: The Cucurbits (1937, 35–36), the squash is incorrectly described as having stringy, insipid flesh of a pale orange color. I can only surmise that the authors tested this squash with impure seed, for I grew the Quaker pie pumpkin many years ago from seed obtained from a family of Quakers in Iowa — Newlins by name, who owned a small seed business — and my squash grew true to the original strain. A check in several seed catalogs, including Maule’s Seed Catalogue for 1898 and Dreer’s Garden Book for 1924, confirmed that the original introduction was white-fleshed. It also had a slight coconut flavor, like the old pineapple squash. I would think that the unusual flesh color would recommend this squash today, with so much interest now in creating an American food identity.
The squash grows on very long vines, usually 15 to 18 feet in length. This is rather large for small gardens, but since the leaves are small, the vines are not as invasive as some varieties. The leaves are also quite decorative because they are profusely marked with gray patches. More impressive are the flowers, which are extraordinarily large, some measuring 8 inches across when in full bloom. I cannot think of a more ideal source of squash blossoms for stuffing.
The yellow summer crookneck is one of our oldest documented varieties of squash. According to correspondence between Philadelphia Quaker Timothy Matlack and Thomas Jefferson in 1807, published by Edwin Morris Betts in Jefferson’s Garden Book (1944, 341), the yellow crookneck squash was native to New Jersey. It was a variety preserved as an heirloom by the Cooper family of Camden, who had cultivated it for nearly a hundred years. There is no reason to discount Matlack’s story because the Coopers were actively engaged in horticulture and were well known in New Jersey and Pennsylvania for their Cooper’s Pale Green Asparagus, considered by many the finest variety in colonial America. The Coopers were also responsible for preserving Willing’s Barbados Pepper, which came into my collection from the late Mary Larkin Thomas. In any event, if we accept Matlack’s explanation, then the summer crookneck is the only squash that can be traced directly to the Lenape peoples who once inhabited the Delaware Valley.
The summer crookneck grows on a bush rather than on a trailing vine. The leaves are large, five-lobed, and grayish green. The mature fruit measures 8 to 9 inches long and ripens from soft yellow to yellow orange. The skin surface is heavily warted. If this squash inadvertently crosses with squash in the vicinity, the warts are one of the first features to show up in subsequent seasons. The interior flesh is yellowish white, although there are now varieties that are solid yellow, but these are a later development. For culinary purposes, the squash is harvested very young, while still tender.
To yield viable seed, the squash must be allowed to ripen until the skin is pale orange and woody like a gourd. It is also advisable to let the fruit mature in this condition on the plant for two weeks so that the seed can undergo its final aging process. This precaution will ensure a larger proportion of viable seed the following season.
This squash is descended from the old potato pumpkin of the Upper South and Middle States. According to Thomas Jefferson (1944, 154), the variety was introduced in the late 1780s from Jamaica with the slave trade. Although eaten by whites, this squash was especially popular among the black population of the Old South. Its name is due to the fact that the taste of the flesh closely resembles that of a sweet potato; thus it served the place of sweet potatoes until they came into season. The oldest published American recipe for cooking potato pumpkin appeared in The Virginia House-Wife (1824, 132). The pumpkin was harvested young, when 7 or 8 inches in diameter, pared, and stuffed. It was then baked either in a pan or in a large tin mold so that it could be turned out and served like a molded pudding.
The Tennessee sweet potato squash may descend from an early variety known in the 1840s as the Green Striped Bell — indeed, that is one of its former synonyms — but thus far no firm evidence has surfaced to connect the two. W. Atlee Burpee of Philadelphia began offering the squash known today as the Tennessee sweet potato in 1883, and to date, this appears to be the first use of that name. Origins aside, this is one of the most popular heirloom varieties in the South due to its fine texture, its rich flavor, and its excellent storing qualities.
The squash ripens in 110 days on long, vigorous vines measuring 15 to 18 feet, with large, dark green leaves. I would advise planting it in an area of the kitchen garden off to itself or between teepees of pole beans, for it requires space and does not thrive if there is too much competition from other vegetables. The fruit, however, is not large, measuring 12 to 15 inches long and perhaps as much as 10 inches in diameter at it thickest point. In weight, individual fruits range from 12 to 15 pounds, similar to many Hubbards. The skin is ivory yellow with yellow-green markings that change to a mustard color in storage. The seed cavity is large, the flesh greenish white.
There are a number of lesser-known varieties worthy of note, among them the Wickersham sweet potato, the Choctaw sweet potato, and the Florida sweet potato, which are still available through Seed Savers Exchange.
This is popularly known in France as the giraumon turban, and was illustrated in exquisite detail in the Album Vilmorin (1871, 25). This variety of turk’s cap squash was developed in France but was introduced into the United States early in the nineteenth century, perhaps as early as 1820. Unfortunately, it was never given much notice in American garden literature until much later, a telling sign of its original lack of popularity. Furthermore, this squash was sometimes called an acorn squash, especially in English garden books, owing to the acornlike shape of the cap. This has made it especially difficult to distinguish turbans from true acorn squash in early nineteenth-century records.
The Bon Jardinier for 1818 referred to this squash as a turban, and this is accepted as the source for the name. Thus it is safe to presume that the Vilmorins who published Le Bon Jardinier also had a hand in refining the variety as we now know it. Before 1818, there were several turban-shaped squash known to horticulturists, but most of these are now extinct because they were never considered worthy of culinary merit. Even the turk’s cap is grown today more for ornament than for cookery, because its light yellow flesh is rather tasteless. On the other hand, it is an excellent keeper. When care is taken not to damage the “cap” (where rotting is most likely to occur first), the squash can be kept in storage from September to the following June without deterioration.
The reason it keeps so well is its hard, woody rind, which is very difficult to remove. The simplest way to cook this squash is to cut it in half, scrape out the seeds, and place the halves in glass bowls with about 1/2 cup of water. Cover the bowls with cling wrap and cook in a microwave oven on high for 15 minutes. The flesh will scoop out like mashed potatoes and can be used as a thickener for soups, especially for split-pea soups, both green and yellow.
Fearing Burr (1865, 214–15) did not consider the turban squash fit for storage. But the two varieties he discussed differed considerably from the French one treated here. The turban squash of Burr was large and fleshy, and his Improved Turban, which he considered a subvariety, was even better suited to culinary purposes, although neither one was a good keeper. Seed for both of these old American turban varieties is difficult to come by today, which is why I hesitate to devote much attention to them. However, they are excellent heirlooms well worthy of revived notice.
The turk’s cap produces 8-to-10-foot vines with dark green leaves. Since the plants are small, they are excellently suited for small gardens, one reason for their continued popularity in France. The squash generally measures 7 to 8 inches thick and from 10 to 12 inches in diameter. Individual fruit may weigh anywhere from 8 to 10 pounds — most of it rind — ripening in about 115 days from planting. In short-season areas, where frost may be expected in early September, start the plants indoors in pots so that they are well advanced by the time they are set out on hills.
Mandan squash was introduced commercially in 1912 by the seed firm of Oscar H. Will & Company of Bismark, North Dakota. That strain was white, oblate in shape, and yielded fruit weighing 3 to 4 pounds on plants generally described as “bush,” even though they sent out vines of considerable length. In any case, the squash was said to originate among the Mandan Indians of the northern Great Plains, hence the name. In fact, Mandan appears to be a variant form of several similar North American squashes of great age. No one has effectively pinpointed their true origin.
The white-skinned Mandan of Will & Company became a well-known commercial variety, more round in shape than the yellow variety that I grow. Its creamy skin is dappled with deep forest green between green stripes. The flesh is a pale lime-white and makes an excellent summer squash when harvested young.
The authors of The Vegetables of New York: The Cucurbits (1937, 201) remarked that White Mandan was similar to two old Eastern squashes: Long Island White Bush, and Green Striped Bergen, the latter introduced commercially in 1841. Because of its bell-like shape, I have always assumed that my Yellow Mandan is actually a selection of Green Striped Bergen by another name. There are several reasons to support this, nineteenth-century iconographic sources aside.
The Yellow Mandan is not a yellow White Mandan. The flesh of the yellow is either pale orange or golden yellow (depending on soil), and the skin is a creamy yellow where the white is “sea foam white,” an old term for white with a tinge of green. Furthermore, the fruits of the yellow are smaller, weighing 1 1/2 to 2 pounds, or just about half of what one would expect of a true White Mandan. The yellow is also more fragrant when ripe and stores better. It can be pared, seeded, sliced like an apple, and dried.
Varietal distinctions aside, only Mandan and Yellow Mandan are presently available through Seed Savers Exchange; the others have vanished from seed lists altogether. It is an excellent squash for small gardens. The leaves resemble large grape leaves, and they hug the ground so that the vines do not compete with taller vegetables nearby. Thus, it thrives under the protection of corn or around the base of staked tomatoes. More important, the plants produce abundantly. I am sure that I have gathered at least fifteen squash from each hill, and this during the height of a drought that in my region wiped out the Jersey pumpkin harvest.
I dry this pumpkin in order to reconstitute it as paste or puree for my ongoing recipe project in American Indian cookery. Frankly, dried pumpkin is practical, since it stores easily and does not take up much space. Otherwise, treat the mature fruit like acorn squash. Incidentally, the young fruit, when about 2 inches in diameter, may be sliced and served raw with dips or cooked like the small ronde de Nice zucchini.
Find seeds for these heirlooms and more with our Custom Seed and Plant Finder.
Photos and Illustrations Courtesy William Woys Weaver.
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