From one small seed planted in mid-May, large-leaved and lush vines stretch out a little more each day until they quietly cover large territories and the ground around them disappears.
Under dense canopies, the squash develop, hidden from scrutiny in quiet privacy until vines begin to die down in September, suddenly revealing the mature fruits’ strange personalities to all.
From the more familiar pumpkin types, to the subtly striped tiny delicata, to huge warted Hubbard squash, there is no end of strange and beautiful winter squash shapes and colors. Finding a multitude of them exposed at the end of every season is always a surprising sensation.
Flavors and textures of the flesh vary too, and range from mild and smooth to rich, sweet and dry. Drier flesh varieties are often used for baking or soups, while more moist, thin-skinned, smooth-fleshed varieties are simply roasted or baked and mashed.
Winter squash and pumpkins are in the Cucurbita family and have been used for centuries by native peoples as staple foods in North and South America. Earliest domestication likely dates back 10,000 years.
Three main species are grown. Curcurbita maxima is a species group that contains many of the pumpkins, Hubbard squash, banana squash and buttercup types. Stems tend to be thick and spongy.
The Curcurbita moschata group contains the very popular butternut types and the flat cheese pumpkins. Stems are strong, hard and flare where they attach to the fruit.
The Curcurbita pepo type have five-sided stems and contain the acorn squash, some winter pumpkins, spaghetti squash, crook-neck summer squash, gourds, mini-pumpkins, zucchini, and pattypan types.
Winter squash are highly nutritious and levels of vitamin A, C, B, K as well as antioxidants and fiber are high. Often, the more orange the flesh, the more nutritious they are.
Winter squash are insect pollinated.
The squash bee is a native pollinator and only visits flowers in the Cucurbita family. It is up and active at dawn and has usually finished pollination by noon when each day’s flowers begin to fade and close. The stingless male bees sleep within the flowers. Female bees are solitary and ground nesting. Honeybees also avidly visit the flowers but are not as efficient pollinators.
A number of local farms grow and sell winter squash. Chandler Biggs and Leila Schneider at Hayshaker Farm grow long, relaxed rows of them that stretch seemingly to the horizon.
Gossamer lines of flowering cilantro follow the pumpkins down the field, hosting large numbers of pollinators and beneficial insects. Squash bugs have only been an issue with kabocha squash, and not every year.
Black Futsu, a very small Japanese strongly ribbed pumpkin with thick flesh and a buttery chestnut flavor is a favorite. They cut it along the ridges, toss it with olive oil and spices and roast it. It is eaten skin and all and makes delicious “squash fries.”
Leila likes Sibley, a large blue Hubbard type dating from 1887 and originating from the Missouri River watershed that stores well and is great for baking. The flavor is at its best in January. It is roasted, cut up and put into freezer bags. One squash provides many meals.
Another favorite is the richly flavored Musquee de Provence, a cinderella-type pumpkin that is sold in the markets in France by the slice. They also grow winter luxury pumpkins, considered the best of the culinary pie pumpkins, to sell to the Colville Street Patisserie in Walla Walla.
At the farmer’s markets, they encourage people to branch out and try different varieties. Their favorite squash-oriented website is: eatwintersquash.org, an effort by Oregon farmers and Oregon State University to both grow well and expand the use and marketing potential of winter squash. Delicious recipes abound on the site.
At Welcome Table Farm, Emily Asmith likes Potimarron, a brilliant orange French heirloom chestnut-flavored squash that is roasted for pies, with flavor that improves over time in storage.
Delicata, a slim and elongated squash with delicate yet nutty flavor developed by Cornell University, is a favorite for breakfast served sliced, tossed with olive oil and pan fried. Other favorites are blue Hubbard, winter luxury and sugar pie pumpkins. The large blue Hubbard squash originated in South America and was carried in the holds of ships for long voyages because they keep so well.
The family often eats mashed pumpkin with butter instead of mashed potatoes. Another family favorite is curried pumpkin soup. Asmith lets winter squash cure for a couple weeks after picking to let stems harden and flavors develop. She says they are easy to store and can be decorative objects as well.
Jarrahdale squash, an Australian variety, is a flat, ribbed, slate blue pumpkin that sits on her table throughout the fall and winter. It also is one of the best for storage and has thick, fine-textured flesh with sweetness that develops over time.
Amy Dietrich at Frog Hollow Farm describes honeynut squash, another Cornell University developed variety as a mini-butternut type with more concentrated sweet flavor. It is a family favorite, especially when used in curried pumpkin soup.
She uses a recipe from Whitehouse-Crawford restaurant. This variety has three times the amount of beta carotene than the original butternut squash. Delicata squash is also used for breakfast served sliced like a donut and roasted with olive oil and salt and pepper on parchment paper.