Squash on the Scene: The Evolution of Cucurbits

Squash, pumpkins, zucchini, and their cousins all have deep roots in ancient North and South America.

| Fall 2017

This article is Part 3 of Nan Fischer’s four-part series about Three Sisters crops. Part 1 is Ancient Beans for Modern Gardeners and Part 2 is A-Maize-ing Maize: The History of Corn. The fourth and final installment will appear in our Winter 2017/2018 issue.

The main ingredient in both traditional pumpkin pie and the ubiquitous zucchini bread is the result of millennia of selection and breeding. Like all of our modern food crops, squash (Cucurbita spp.) once grew in the wild. The ancestral species of today’s cucurbits are native to North and South America and were present long before the arrival of humans. The earliest known evidence of their domestication dates back nearly 10,000 years ago, which predates the domestication of both beans and maize. Of the dozens of wild cucurbits, five were domesticated:

Cucurbita maxima includes many of the winter squashes (buttercup, banana, and Hubbard) and originated in South America.

C. moschata is from Mesoamerica or South America. The oldest remains, dating from 4900 B.C. to 3500 B.C., were found in northwestern Mexico. This species includes butternut squash and golden cushaw.

C. argyrosperma is a species of winter squash that’s believed to have originated in southern Mexico more than 7,000 years ago. It includes the green-striped cushaw and the silver-seeded gourd.

C. ficifolia is commonly called the figleaf gourd, and its place of domestication was somewhere in Mesoamerica or South America; the oldest remains were found in Peru.

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