Sunday, October 5, 2014

Plant Story - American Squashes

zucchini and yellow summer squash
zucchini and yellow summer squash
Sorting out the squashes is a job for experts, which I am not. They are wonderfully confused.

“True squashes” are plants in the genus Cucurbita (Cucurbitaceae, cucumber family). About 15 species make up Cucurbita, all of them native to the Americas. 

Melons, such as cantalope genus Cucumis, watermelon, genus Citrullus (blog about watermelon) and others--all the melons--are from Asia, Africa or Europe. 

None of the squashes are able to survive more than a touch of frost and so all came from warm regions of southern North America, Central America and northern South America. Ten are wild species and five were long ago domesticated. All were originally vines (a few crop varieties are bushes) generally with golden flowers. All are monoecious, meaning they have two quite distinct types of flower on each plant, in fact on each branch, one flower that only produces pollen ("male") and another that does not produce any pollen but contains the ovary and develops fruits with the seeds inside ("female"). In their native range, there are bees which specialize in pollinating the cucurbitas (Peponapis and Xenoglossa, squash bees), but honey bees and other small bees are effective pollinators as well.

squash plant
squash plant
Generally we call squashes vegetables, but from the plant's point of view they are fruits since they contain the seeds. Vegetable is a word that refers to the plant's use in human life, not the plant's own characteristics. The word fruit, for botanists, refers to the function to the plant's life, that is, as a container for seeds.

Five squash species are domesticated: Cucurbita argyrosperma (formerly C. mixta), C. ficifolia, C. maxima, C. moschata and C. pepo. Domestication probably began the confusion that pervades modern squashes. The records look something like this:  Cucurbita pepo is one of the longest-domesticated plants known:  it was grown by people in southern Mexico 10,000 years ago. Cucurbita moschata was domesticated, also in southern Mexico, at least 6,900 years ago. The earliest find of Cucurbita argyrosperma grown in human settlements was in southern Mexico about 5,000 years ago and C. ficifolia is recorded from villages in coastal Peru about the same time, 5,000 years ago. The last domesticated squash, C. maxima, was grown by people in coastal Peru 4,000 years ago (2,000 BC). Those are the oldest records known for each species in cultivation, so actual domestication could be substantially longer ago. 

The squashes were probably first cultivated for their seeds. The seeds of wild forms are edible, but the flesh of wild squash fruits is quite bitter. Domestication is the process in which a plant, by being planted, tended and harvested by people, develops characters that adapt it to being cultivated, such as easily-gathered seeds, and characters that people like, such as non-spiny stems or large fruit. 

After domestication, the peoples of the Americas traded squashes, spreading them all over and developing varieties. Some squash species were certainly domesticated more than once, so the oldest record is only part of the story. By the time of European contact, people as far north as New England grew squashes, many people grew several different squashes, and there were diverse varieties, some grown for seeds and others grown to be eaten cooked and others that could be eaten raw. 

You will have noted that although I usually use common names, I’ve been talking in terms of scientific names (or generalizing). That’s because the common names don't match the scientific names in squashes. 
patty pan squash
patty pan squash, a summer squash

It was probably a confused mix of squash varieties before European contact, but Europeans added to the confusion. Europeans encountered squashes everywhere they landed—New England, Virginia, Cuba, Mexico, Brazil, Peru. They took the seeds back to Europe--or to India, or Japan, or wherever they were sailing. As any zucchini grower knows, squashes often produce exuberantly. Beginning with a diverse group of squashes, Europeans carried them all over the world, where new groups of people grew them and selected shapes and colors they liked. The basic squash species do not cross, even when grown in the same garden, so we don’t have a hybrid swarm. What we have instead is an array of similar vegetables produced from different, related plant species. Merchants and shoppers gave similar vegetables the same name, naturally unconcerned about what species the squash was.  As a result, the names of the vegetables don’t match the scientific names, an unusual situation.

The basic distinction in squashes is summer squashes and winter squashes. And the difference between them is that summer squashes are immature fruits, harvested while the rind is soft amd the seeds immature. Winter squashes are mature squash fruits. Summer squash, being soft, must be eaten quickly. In contrast the hard rinds of winter squashes protect them so that they can be stored for some time, that is, until winter. In addition to hard rinds, winter squashes have mature, viable seeds. Most summer squashes are botanically C. pepo but some are C. ficifolia. Summer squashes include cocozelle squash, cousa squash, crooknecks, patty pan (scallop), trombonchino (zucchetta), yellow squash and zucchini. Summer squashes are called vegetable marrows in British English. Winter squashes can be C. argyrosperma, C. maxima, C. moschata and C. pepo botanically and include vegetables called acorn squash, amber squash, autumn cup, banana squash, buttercup squash, butternut, carnival, delicata, hubbard, spaghetti, sweet dumpling squash and turban squash. 
butternut, a winter squash
butternut, a winter squash

Pumpkins are ripe squash fruits, so they could be included in winter squashes. Pumpkins  can be any of the four species, C. argyrosperma, C. maxima, C. moschata and C. pepo. I’ll write about pumpkins another time.

Experts can tell you which species the squash is, using seed color, stem characteristics and other clues. Like most consumers, I don't really care if the winter squash is Cucurbita maxima or C. moschata, but it is unusual, even in the complexity of domesticated crops, that the species and vegetable names are so mixed up. With most crops, the common name points to one scientific name and vice versa (watermelon is Citrullus lanatus, the pea is Pisum sativum). I stated above that any of four species can be winter squash. The reverse is true, for example Cucurbita pepo varieties are summer squashes, winter squashes and pumpkins. All mixed up!

The term squash itself is interesting. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the origin as from the Narragansett word asquutasquash < asq raw, uncooked.  The "-ash" is a plural ending.

crook-neck squash
crook-neck squash, summer squash
The Narragansetts lived (and live) in Rhode Island. They encountered European settlers starting about 1620. The first report of the word squash for the cucurbit fruit is from 1643 in Roger Williams’ A Key into the Language of America, a Narragansett grammar and dictionary. Williams wrote "askútasquash, their Vine apples, which the English from them call Squashes, about the bignesse of Apples of several colours, a sweet light wholesome refreshing." His next entry is " Uppakumíneash - the seed of them. " Note that because this is an American plant, there was no English word for it.

F. B. O'Brien in the online Algonquin dictionary (Narragansett is an Algonquin group language) wrote that the literal meaning of askútasquash was “raw plant that can be eaten”. He wrote "The English word "squash" is derived from this Narragansett. The English took the part "squash" (which they did not realize was already plural!) and added "es" to make the new word "squashes". Other Narragansett words that may be of interest are: askootasquash ("cucumbers", an English import) and quonooasquash ("gourds") and monaskootasquash ("melons").  All have the root -ask or -asq meaning "green, raw, natural". The word asquash was used in general to mean "edible things green and raw". " (For the record, melons were new to the Narragansett too. There are no melons native to the New World.)

I imagine:
Englishman “What is that?” 
Narragansett: “Those are askútasquash."  
Englishman “Oh, squashes!” 
Narragansett sighs at the mangling of his language.

winter squash
winter squash
Curiously, English already had a word squash, which you can find in Shakespeare (Twelfth Night (1623) i. v. 152   "As a squash is before tis a pescod" and "Winter's Tale (1623) i. ii. 162  " This Kernell, This squash, this Gentleman.." Here, a squash is the unripe pod of a pea and when applied a person, contemptuous. The verb, "to squash (crush flat)" comes from Old French esquasser and is related to the verb quash. The noun meaning pea pod used by Shakespeare is believed to have been derived from the verb squash. 

Not only are squashes American, but their name is from a native American word. There are a lot of convergent words in modern English, where two words from different origins come to be spelled and said the same. Squash and squash are obviously two (one?) of them.

Europeans spread squashes from the Americas all over the world, leading to the diverse and curious varieties found in Asia, India and Italy in addition to all the diversity in the Americas. It is possible but not easy to identify the species of a squash--I recommend just enjoying squashes!

Comments and corrections welcome.

O'Brien, F. B. Algonquin Language Revival Chapter 7: Corn, Fruits, Berries and Trees, 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.
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)

Kathy Keeler

Buy the book! Curious Stories of Familiar Garden Plants, by Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist.
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winter squash
winter squash


  1. Well, I'll repeat what I just wrote because I'm not certain whether the first went through to you. I wanted to thank you for your post above, and especially for your interesting research. Can you please tell me what the hairs on the stem of the squash blossom and also those on the blossom itself are properly called? In my layman's research, I can only come across trichome that seems near-correct, but because I'm working on a squash blossom poem, I'd like the term to be as accurate as possible. Thank you very much for any help and guidance here. Theresa elder

  2. Theresa Thanks for your kind words.
    Plant hairs of all kinds are called trichomes, usually with an adjective "glandular trichomes", branched trichomes, capitate trichomes". But in the sources I consulted, "hairs" was used in quite technical plant descriptions.
    Some of my sources use trichomes and hairs as synonyms, other sources treat trichomes as any outgrowth of plant epidermis, with hairs as different kinds of trichomes from scales or water vesicles.
    In any event, hair is a technical term. See for example the description of the Cucurbitaceae on the Missouri Botanic Garden's Angiosperm Phylogeny Website -- sorry you have to choose Cucurbitaceae, I can't link more directly--but see "hair" in with all the jargon.
    They are hairs and they are trichomes..Rhyme with either one!

  3. Ah, thank you, Kathy! I suspected that trichome would prove to be the generic hair. In examining an artist's painting of hairs on the stem and blossom of the squash--I'm assuming a basic summer squash blossom--the hairs on the blossom itself appear to be shorter than those on the stem, which are shorter and denser. I appreciate your response! I didn't know whether you'd see my comment or not or even find it in your email. Email accounts are so jammed with mail that I, at least, sometimes hastily delete. Happy to see yours. Thank you for your blob and I'll keep in touch. Theresa Elder

    1. That should read 'blog' not 'blob'! Ha!