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All about squash. A primer on varieties.

All about squash. A primer on varieties.

In the last few years, squash have been appearing in more and more gardens and kitchens. The tasty, oddly shaped fruits are no longer an insider secret, and are now taking centre stage in village fairs, growing contests and house decorations. They are easy to cultivate, making them an ideal starting point for new gardeners.

Some of you will know the word "pumpkin" better, but in fact pumpkins are just one type of squash. Squash come in an almost limitless array of colours and shapes. But it is not just their beautiful shape, but also the taste and shelf life of squash that make this fruit (yes, squash are a fruit!) one of the most important stalwarts in the kitchen year round. Squash have a range of uses beyond just eating them: there are also varieties that can be used for animal food, for oil, for decoration, for carving at Halloween or for competitive growing.

The best squash for eating
From the wide choice of varieties, there are a few that are particularly good to eat. The most delicious squash are varieties of the kind Cucurbita moschata, the winter squash. They have a sweet, usually orange pulp with very few fibres. They include the varieties 'Butternut', 'Trombetta di Albenga' or 'Long of Naples'. Winter squash generally have a long ripening season (up to 150 days). Other varieties are advisable for regions where the first frosts can come from mid-September onwards. Other very aromatic and faster-ripening varieties are 'Blue Ballet', 'Green Hokkaido' with its distinctive chestnut taste and 'Table Ace' and 'Ebony Acorn', both of which have a delicate hazelnut taste.

Toxic courgettes?
Courgette are also members of the squash family. Every year, there seems to be uncertainty about whether courgettes and squash can be toxic. It's really very simple: if courgettes or squash taste "normal", then everything is OK. If, on the other hand, they taste bitter, they are toxic and should not be eaten. The bitter compounds cannot be removed by either peeling or cooking. In case you're wondering whether you would notice this bitterness, rest assured that you will! A courgette containing the bitter compound cucurbitacin would be so bitter that you would struggle to swallow any of it. Cucurbitacins cause severe nausea and diarrhoea in even minute quantities, and can be fatal in larger quantities.
But how do these bitter compounds get into a courgette? This answer is also quite simple: courgettes belong to the same botanical species 'Cucurbita pepo' as a number of decorative squash, which are also being cultivated more in recent years. Most decorative squash are also edible. However there are exceptions – the small, pear-shaped varieties with the hard skin. They contain the toxic bitter compounds. Since they belong to the same botanical species as courgettes and a number of other edible squash, they can cross with them. If you then take seeds from a courgette or edible squash, the plants cultivated from them will also contain these bitter compounds.

Squash for cultivation on balconies
Squash do well in large containers (at least 60 litres of soil), provided they are well fertilised and regularly watered. Bushy varieties with very little spread are well suited to this type of gardening. The varieties 'Sweet Dumpling' with its chestnut-like aroma and the round varieties 'Rondini' and 'Golden Apple' with their small fruit have proven successful.

The best varieties for high altitudes
Early-ripening varieties like 'Pattypan', 'Ebony Acorn', 'Orange Hokkaido', 'Green Hokkaido' and 'Red Kuri' can handle high altitudes.

The right way to store squash
Squash can only be stored for a long time if they are fully ripe and the stalk is left on the fruit. You can tell when a squash is fully ripe when you cannot scratch or dent it with a fingernail. Harvest before the first night frosts at the latest. Room temperatures of 12-17° C and humidity of approx. 70% are ideal storage conditions.

Andrea Heistinger