In 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a National Holiday and in that move, solidified our national memory of this plant-based holiday. The original Thanksgiving occurred several hundred years earlier in 1621. It was a celebration of the plants produced through successful cultivation of crops in the New World by a group of pilgrims that had suffered severe losses the previous winter but triumphantly learned to farm locally adapted crops in the Massachusetts soils with help from the indigenous Wampanoag Tribe.
Today, our Thanksgiving cuisine includes the staples of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie, but the original feast was far from our modern fare. Squash, such as the pumpkin, were undoubtedly part of the 3 day feast that occurred at the Plymouth Colony, although not as pumpkin pie since wheat flour was not available for crust. Squash was likely consumed in various cooked dishes, some including seafood or wild game meats (primarily venison and water fowl, not the turkey we think of today). Native Americans were regular growers and consumers of squash and shared their skill in cultivation with the colonists of the New World. As the colonists and Native Americans began to distribute squash to other parts of the globe, squash has an interesting history of use in both the New and Old World.
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 grew 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 genus of plants was unknown in Europe until the late 16th century, with the first known record of squash 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 in Mexico, 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 these characteristics eased cultivation by Native Americans. As early colonists and explorers sent squash seeds back to the Old World, they quickly became popular among horticulturalists due to their ease of hybridization among species.
Cucurbita species contain 20 chromosomes that are not completely isolated from one another by genetic barriers. Therefore, breeders were able to easily select for certain genetics across species. By the 1800’s, extensive plant breeding, research and discovery of new species and further scientific classification of the genus paved the way for the abundance of squash varieties 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 (primarily 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 (primarily C. pepo).
Over the past two centuries, hybridization of squash has resulted in a plethora of squash varieties in all shapes and sizes. Some were developed for greater taste and storability, whereas some were developed for ornamental qualities. 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 certainly a part of the first Thanksgiving in 1621 and continue to adorn our holiday feasts (in culinary and ornamental forms) to this day.
Ryan Pankau is Horticulture Extension Educator with University of Illinois Extension serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois, and Vermilion Counties.