Winter squash and the science behind them

Winter squash is tasty and good for you too.

It’s fall in Michigan! The days are getting shorter, the nights cooler, the air a bit crisper and the trees are becoming a palate of red, orange and yellow. With these changes, we begin thinking about the fall harvest. You may enjoy a sunny afternoon harvesting the last fall vegetables from the garden, picking apples or visiting your local farmer’s market one last time. Whatever you are doing, now is the time to stock up on winter squash.

Why squash? I recently worked at the Michigan State University horticulture farm fall fruit sale, and was amazed at the number of people who were truly excited to share their love of squash. This inspired me to learn a little bit more about squash and share it with you in this “plant science at the dinner table” MSU Extension article. Learning more about the foods we eat, how they grow, where they come from and teaching children a little plant science can make for a great activity for young and old.

Most home gardeners separate squash into two very distinct categories: summer squash and winter squash. Summer squash, Cucurbita pepo, is generally grown in about 50 days, has a skin or rind that can be eaten and is usually eaten when it is immature. Summer squash does not have a very good shelf life, lasting only for a couple of weeks after being picked.

Winter squash, on the other hand, usually takes about 100 days from seed to harvest. Winter squash, Curcubita maxima and Curcubita moschataha, have a hard rind and need to be peeled (it is very hard), resulting in very dense fruit. Once picked from the vine, it can last several months. It is time for winter squash to take center stage, focusing on butternut, acorn, hubbard and other winter squashes.

Here are a few facts about winter squash:

  • Squash is a very old food plant, dating back to at least 8,000 B.C.
  • Squash was originally grown in Central Mexico, Peru and Eastern United States.
  • Squash are in the Cucurbitaceae family, which includes cucumbers, melons, pumpkins and gourds.
  • Almost every part of the squash plant is edible, including the leaves, tendril shoots, stems, flowers, seeds and fruit.
  • Squash has also grown to be used as containers (dried gourds).
  • Squash comes from the Narragansett Indian word “askutasquash,” translated roughly to “eaten raw or uncooked.”
  • Squash is a good source of minerals, carotenes and vitamin A, with moderate quantities of vitamins B and C.
  • Winter squash provides the greatest percentage of certain carotenoids.
  • Winter squash has shown potential in cancer prevention.
  • China and India grow the most squash.
  • U.S. is the biggest importer of squash.

Squash can be roasted, baked, sautéed, boiled, microwaved and made into a variety of tasty soups and casseroles. The choices are almost endless. There are recipes that are quite simple and recipes that require interesting spices and are quite complex. I prefer to roast my squash with a bit of garlic and butter. I have experienced toppings from the traditional marshmallows to crushed candy canes. I must admit, I’m not fond of the marshmallow topped squash, but the squash topped with crushed candy canes was quite tasty.

So stock up on winter squash and try a new recipe or two. I am sure it will be good and know it will be good for you.

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