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Missouri Environment & Garden


David Trinklein
University of Missouri
Plant Science & Technology
(573) 882-9631

Winter Squash for Thanksgiving

David Trinklein
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9631

Published: November 7, 2018

acorn squash

As table fare for a typical Thanksgiving meal, squash pales in significance when compared with crops such as sweet potato, cranberry and pumpkin. It is recorded, however, that squash was served when the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe gathered at Plymouth Colony in 1621 for the first Thanksgiving. Perhaps the time has arrived for this vegetable native to the Americas to be given a bit more attention as the menu for this year's Thanksgiving dinner is planned.

When the first Europeans arrived in America, they found Native Americans eating a food they had never seen before. Native Americans belonging to the Narragansett tribe called the food 'askutasquash'. Literally interpreted, the latter means 'eaten raw'. Today, we simply refer to it as squash; the name can be both singular and plural. Evidently, early settlers were not very impressed by squash, until they had to survive harsh colonial winters. It was then they adopted it as a food staple.

Squash is one of the oldest known food crops. Archeologists have found the remains of squash in cliff dwellings in the southwestern United States and Mexico, indicating that squash was being grown and used by early civilizations for at least 8,000 years.

Many of the types of squash we know as winter squash are thought to have originated near the Andes in what is now northern Argentina. They likely were spread to other locations by early civilizations. Some squash are native to Mexico and Central America. Their spread by early nomadic civilizations make the determination of their exact origin very difficult. Although squash has not become as popular in many parts of the world, as an American vegetable currently it ranks fifth in popularity. Only tomato, bean, cucumber and lettuce are consumed in greater quantities than squash.

Basically, two different types of squash exist: summer squash and the aforementioned winter squash. Both are members of the Curcurbitaceae plant family making them closely akin to cucumber, gourds, musk melons and watermelon. The primary difference between the two is the state of maturity of the squash when it is best to eat. Summer squash are eaten when immature and small. They are picked frequently throughout the growing season. While they may be eaten when more mature, their quality is reduced with age, as they become more fibrous.

Winter squash, on the other hand, are harvested only after reaching full maturity and the outer rind is very hard. Because squash of this type develops a hard, protective rind, they can be stored throughout much of the winter (hence, the name 'winter' squash). In the days before modern transportation when there was little access to fresh vegetables during the winter, the winter squashes served as an excellent source of vitamin A, dietary fiber and other vitamins and minerals. Because winter squash can be grown easily and stored under normal household conditions, their contribution to the health and well-being of early families during long, cold winters was important.

Some of the better known types of winter squash include acorn, amber cup, banana, blue hubbard, butternut, buttercup, sweet dumpling and Turk's turban. A squash that has become popular in recent years is spaghetti squash, which also is a type of winter squash. In some areas, another name for winter squash is 'baking squash', because they are often prepared by baking in the oven.

In addition to being used for food, some of the more colorful winter squash often find their way into holiday décor, along with pumpkins and gourds. Turk's turban, amber cup, golden acorn and sweet dumpling are among the winter squashes popular for this purpose. Additionally, unless the squash are cut/carved in the decorating process, they ultimately can find their way to the dinner table after the holidays are over.

For maximum storage life, winter squash must be completely mature at harvest. They should be stored in a cool, dry place where temperatures remain between 50 and 55 degrees F. Ventilation around each squash is important to prevent surface (rind) diseases which can spread from squash to squash. They should be spread on open shelves or arranged loosely in baskets or boxes. If stored at higher temperatures, their flesh may become stringy and lose quality. As a rule, acorn squash is one of the first to decline in quality in storage, whereas butternut squash appears to have the longest storage life in conditions less than ideal.

Squash is a relatively easy vegetable to grow. It definitely is a warm-season vegetable and seeds should not be planted outdoors until May, after the soil has warmed. Squash enjoys a full sun exposure and well-drained garden soil. Fertilize prior to planting according to soil test results. Additional nitrogen is beneficial once squashes have set and begin to enlarge. While gardeners with little space once avoided squash, there now are many varieties available in bush, rather than vining, form.

Squash vine borer is an insect that can be very damaging and cause plants to collapse, often when they are starting to produce a crop. Typically, plants will suddenly wilt and die for no apparent reason. The wilting is due to the action of the larvae of the squash vine borer. The adult borer (a moth) deposits its eggs at the base of the plant just at the soil line. Upon hatching from the eggs, the larvae tunnel into the stem of the plant and live inside, consuming plant tissue as they develop. The appearance of a 'sawdust-like' material at the base of the plant is evidence that infestation has occurred. Insecticides should be applied to small plants several times during the growing season to prevent squash borer larvae from entering the stem.

Squash bug and cucumber beetle are two additional pests of squash. Both can be controlled through more conventional means. Squash bugs usually frequent the under sides of leaves and may go unnoticed until populations have built up to very large levels. Hand removal of egg clusters which appear shiny and look somewhat metallic is a good first step in squash bug management. Insecticides in the form of sprays or dusts also can also be used. Cucumber beetle is more noticeable than is the squash bug but usually less damaging. Many of the common garden insecticides that are stomach poisons are quite effective in its control.

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REVISED: February 21, 2017