It’s been a bountiful season of squash.  Whether it’s pumpkins, gourds or squash, there are many ways to enjoy them.

Here with the dirt on squash Ryan Pankau U of I Extension horticulture educator. 

All squash, commonly referred to as “pumpkins”, “gourds” and “squashes” originated in the New World and are members of the genus Cucurbita.  Their native range extends from the central United States south to Argentina, with the highest species diversity in Mexico, which is believed to be the origination point of the genus.  Around 20 species of wild squash grow among the temperate to tropical climates throughout their native range.  Most all of our domesticated squash we enjoy today came from just five species (C. argyrosperma, C. ficfolia, C. maxima, C. moscha and C. pepo).  

This vegetable was unknown in Europe until the late 16th century, with the first known record of squash in the Old World occurring in 1591.  However, long before the Old World debut of squash it was highly valued and widely cultivate by indigenous people in the Americas.  Around 8,000 years ago, the earliest known domestication of Cucurbita species occurred, some 4,000 years before domestication of the primary ancient agricultural crop we think of in the Americas, maize (corn). `

Some advantageous qualities of squash, such as quick germination, early flowering, rapid growth and storable seeds, may have led to early domestication as they eased cultivation by early Native Americans.  As early colonists and explorers sent squash seed back to the new world, they quickly became popular among horticulturalists due to their ease of hybridization among species.  Cucurbita species contain 20 chromosomes that are not isolated genetically.  Therefore, breeders were able to easily select for certain genetics across species.  By the 1800’s, extensive breeding, research and discovery of new species and further scientific classification of the genus lead to the extensive varieties of squash we know today.

In general, squashes can be broadly grouped into two categories based on their harvest time. Later growing, odd-shaped squash, often with tough or warty skin which have long keeping qualities are usually referred to as winter squash (C. maxima and C. moschata).   Whereas the smaller, quick-growing squash which are usually eaten before the rinds and seeds are mature are called summer squash (C. pepo).

Over the past two centuries, hybridization of squash has resulted in a plethora of squash varieties.  Some were developed for greater taste and storability, whereas some were developed for ornamental qualities.  Some of the most awe inspiring ornamental characteristics, such as odd shapes, warty skins and interesting color variations provide great beauty in fall and are often associated with the Thanksgiving holiday.  Take some time to enjoy these wonderful fall ornamentals this year and consider the human history they have impacted.  They were undoubtedly a part of the first Thanksgiving in 1621 and continue to adorn our holiday feasts (in culinary and ornamental forms) to this day.

Squash, members of the genus Cucurbita, are often referred to as gourds, pumpkins or squashes.  Due to a long human history of cultivation and breeding we have a large variety of interesting squash today.