As my regular readers know, sometimes my gardening articles are inspired by the things that happen to me in real life. For example, I wrote about water conservation after traveling to the New Mexico desert, and about produce competitions during my week at the state fair.
Sometimes, though, the inspiration comes from a totally unplanned source.
Picture this: A Sunday afternoon trip to a large market in Charleston has several vendors selling produce. I pick out a respectable-looking pie pumpkin to take home and roast with some pecans, brown sugar, cinnamon and butter to have a tasty dessert with dinner.
I carefully prepare the pumpkin and wait patiently to dig in to dessert, only to find a disgusting surprise. The flesh of the pumpkin is not creamy like a regular pumpkin — it’s stringy, just like a spaghetti squash. There’s also not much flavor, just like a spaghetti squash.
But how could that be? It looks like a pumpkin, so shouldn’t it taste like a pumpkin? The answer may just surprise you.
A matter of genetics
It seems that my problem pumpkin suffered from more than just an identity crisis — its confusion stems from a trick of genetics.
It turns out that pumpkins and spaghetti squash, despite their vastly different appearances, textures and flavors, are the same species. Both of these squashes are in the species Cucurbita pepo. They are just different varieties.
Pumpkins are C. pepo var. pepo and spaghetti squash are C. pepo var. fastigata.
The species doesn’t stop there, though! It also contains a vast array of other squashes — acorn, yellow crookneck, scallop, yellow summer, zucchini and ornamental gourds. Any of these squashes can cross with each other, leading to weird hybrids that may or may not be tasty.
I’ve heard of pumpkins and zucchini crossing, resulting in what I would call a “pucchini.” I’ve even seen recipes for pucchini bread and cake.
My hybrid from the market, the “pughetti,” was not quite as tasty for dessert. Perhaps it would lend itself to a more savory preparation.
It may be difficult to wrap your head around how these vastly different squash can interbreed and hybridize, but we only need to look to man’s best friend for a more familiar example. While there are many breeds of dogs, ranging from chihuahuas to mastiffs, they are all the same species. Despite their differences, they can all interbreed to form hybrids themselves.
We just call those hybrids “mutts.” These different breeds developed in geographically diverse areas from the same set of genes.
Much like dogs, the morphological differences in these squashes come from the geographic diversity of where they developed and from the long time they have been in cultivation.
It is believed that these squash are some of the first plants to be domesticated. Some date back to 10,000 years ago in regions of Mexico.
Squash aren’t the only crops that suffer from an identity crisis either. Beets and Swiss chard are the species Beta vulgaris. One was developed to have a fleshy, edible root and the other was developed to have sturdier, edible stalks.
All of the cole crops also are members of the same species. Their differences are even more apparent than the squash’s. Broccoli and cauliflower seem like easy connections to make, but they are also the same species as cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi and collards. All of these plants descend from a wild Mediterranean mustard called Brassica oleracea.
What this means for gardeners (and farmers)
Since these plants easily cross to result in unusual, unpredictable hybrids, gardeners and farmers want to take care in saving seed from year to year. That’s what I imagine happened in the case of my perplexing pumpkin — the farmer saved seed from a pumpkin not knowing that the bees pollinated it from a nearby spaghetti squash.
In order to save seeds from these fickle and fecund crops, it is necessary to isolate and manually pollinate their flowers.
If you recall from my August article called “Sex and the Single Squash,” there are separate male and female flowers on squash plants. A few female flowers should be selected to produce fruit specifically for seed saving and protected from bees with a barrier such as a paper bag before the flower opens. A male flower from the same variety should be selected and used to pollinate a female flower.
While it may seem time-consuming, the results will be worth it in the end. Even if you don’t have the other squashes in your garden, bees can travel two miles or more, so keep that in mind.
A happy ending?
While my pumpkin was less than pleasing, it did at least provide a great example to talk about genetics. And all was not lost! The roasted seeds of this peculiar pepo did turn out tasty (seasoned with local salt from J.Q. Dickinson in Malden), and dessert ended up being ice cream.
My word of advice: Stick with butternut squash for pies and desserts. They aren’t quite as loose with their genetics as the other squashes. Plus I think they taste much better.