As one of the few crops that are truly native to the Americas, winter squash come in a dazzling range of shapes, sizes, and colors. There are the gnarly, squat turbans and buttercups; heirloom candy roasters of the Cherokee; pumpkins used for pies, decoration, jack-o’-lanterns, or their gargantuan growth potential; the long-season tropical squash; and the many hybrid off-shoots of compost squash that gardeners inadvertently grow year after year. All this variety is split across four botanical species (Cucurbita spp.), each with their own defining characteristics. This guide highlights five favorites, all of which can be grown from seed in Western North Carolina and found locally in farmers markets throughout fall and winter.
Butternuts – Cucurbita moschata
The butternut squash is well known, but many people are unaware of the wide range of butternuts available. The Waltham butternut is a Massachusetts heirloom that won an award in 1970 from All-America Selections (which promotes new garden varieties with superior garden performance). With its classic creamy skin and dense orange flesh, it’s one of the most popular butternuts grown today. The Honeynut is a newer arrival, praised for its sweet flavor. It was developed by Cornell plant breeder Michael Mazourek. The Honeynut may be a miniature butternut, but it’s made a big impact, becoming a quick favorite among chefs. In the other direction are enormous varieties like the Tahitian butternut, which can grow up to 30 pounds and make enough squash pie to feed the whole family for weeks.
Butternuts are an excellent choice for the home gardener because their solid stems offer protection against the pesky and destructive squash vine borers, which can quickly kill the healthiest of squash plants. Butternuts are also known for their good storage potential, achieving six to nine months in ideal conditions (cool, dark, and dry).
Acorn Squash – Cucurbita pepo
After butternuts, the acorn squash is perhaps the next most popular winter squash. Deeply ridged, dark green fruits with blotches of orange are loved in the home kitchen because of their nutty flesh and perfect serving size. Acorn squash rarely weigh more than a few pounds and have fairly uniform seed cavities. This makes them an ideal stuffing squash. The available recipes are endless, but some combination of onions, nuts cheese, and greens (kale, spinach, collards) packed into the halved squash and baked on medium-high makes an easy gourmet meal.
Winter squash have the reputation of being rambunctious wanderers in the garden, and it can be a challenge for the small backyard gardener. Fortunately, the Table Queen acorn squash offers a solution as a bush-type variety that grows a dense set of fruit near the base of a compact plant. This variety could even be grown in a large container if sufficient water and nutrients are supplied throughout the growing season.
Spaghetti Squash – Cucurbita pepo
Spaghetti squash has become popular in healthy food circles because its stringy flesh is used as a gluten-free, low-carb alternative to spaghetti. The easiest preparation is to slice the melon-shaped, yellow-skinned squash in half and bake it in a roasting pan. Once softened, the mild-flavored, slightly crunchy insides are easily scraped out with a fork and used in place of regular spaghetti. Almost all summer squash and zucchini share the same species, C. pepo, and you can use spaghetti squash in place of any zucchini noodle recipe (or vice versa).
Winter squash are named for their winter storage potential, but they are actually planted around the same time as summer squash (mid-May in Western North Carolina). C. pepo varieties have the shortest storage potential of all the winter squash, so if you’re growing your own food and storing up for winter, eat your spaghetti squash (and acorn squash) first, or process and freeze the “noodles” for longer storage.
Hubbards – Cucurbita maxima
The Hubbards date back to at least the mid-1800s and are part of the same species group as the candy roaster [see story on p. 17]. They come in an exciting range of colors with blue, green, golden, and red Hubbard varieties available. The Hubbards have a classic teardrop shape and often a rough, warty skin. They have the potential to get very big (if you’ve ever seen giant 100-plus-pound pumpkins, then they are related to the Hubbards). Their true sweetness only develops after about three months of storage. When using really large squash, it’s worth planning a couple of meals ahead; once you’ve cut through that thick, protective skin, it will only keep in the fridge for a week or so. Plan to make a roasted squash meal that celebrates the sweetness of the Hubbard, but also a big batch of soup to freeze and a couple of pies to share.
Green-Striped Cushaw – Cucurbita argyrosperma
There are not many varietal options within the species C. argyrosperma, but in this case, quality over quantity wins out. The green-striped cushaw is an heirloom named for its beautiful mottled green and white stripes. It has a distinctive crookneck like its yellow summer squash cousin, only bigger, weighing in at an average of 10-20 lbs. The cushaw has boarded the Slow Food Ark of Taste (a living catalog of delicious and distinctive foods facing extinction), where it is noted, “Making cushaw butter is a family tradition in Tennessee, and all around Appalachia cooks prefer to use cushaws in their pumpkin pies.” The cushaw can be eaten young as a summer squash, but its true potential comes through as a winter squash, storing well for up to six months.
In the garden, cushaws put out vigorous vines. They love the heat and are resistant to vine borers, both good reasons why this squash remains popular in Southern gardens and with Southern chefs. ◊◊
Chris Smith is a seed saver and permaculturist who really enjoys writing. He is Executive Director of The Utopian Seed Project and Communications Manager at Sow True Seed, and he serves on the boards of The People’s Seed and Slow Food Asheville. His book, The Whole Okra, will be published by Chelsea Green in June 2019. More info at theutopianseedproject.org