Plants we Love: Delicata Squash

In our garden, Delicata Squash have a special nickname.  Though they are one of our favorite varieties of winter squash, we refer to them mostly as "unauthorized cucurbita." Some plants we love for their flavor, their easy growth, heavy yields, or their striking colors.  The Delicata has all that.  But some plants we also love for the story they carry of their origin, or our personal discovery of them. The unauthorized cucurbita is one of those, with a history special to us.  

When we were first courting, I was teaching at a small college in Oregon, and Noah was  working in a wide range of places in Asia and Africa, based out of Malaysia.  It's not easy to woo someone from several continents away, but we managed, exchanging long and involved letters by email for months.  The first tangible letter came in a mysterious package Noah mailed between assignments when back at his home base in Kuala Lumpur. He'd alluded to something coming in the real mail in the electronic letters, but I had no idea what to expect.  The box, when it arrived, released a potent mix of exotic smells into the air of my Oregon porch:  cloves from Madagascar, farm-cured vanilla beans, coffee from Tanzania. All were carefully labelled in plastic bags with the bright yellow tape I now know also marks all Noah's photo gear. Deep inside the box was one very official and cryptic sheet of paper with the US customs stamp and a record of one confiscated item, listed as "Unauthorized Propagative Material: Cucurbita spp."  I am enough of a botanist to know that must mean seeds of something in the genus Cucurbita.  But that includes melons, cucumbers, and a whole host of varieties of squash and gourds. I wondered what special exotic forest-edge seeds he might have tried to send, and what their fate was at the US border.  

It turned out that in fact they were nothing so exotic, and of all the things in that package, the only one that actually originated in the US.  Knowing that spring was coming in the Pacific Northwest, he'd enclosed a packet of seeds he'd received while filming a farmer training class put on by friends in Wisconsin:  Delicata Squash seeds officially grown, packaged, and labeled by High Mowing Seeds, with a USDA stamp. They were certainly the most official and approved item in that box, but the only one held up at the border. 

Luckily, on returning to the US later that spring, Noah brought another packet to replace them, and I planted them in the small garden of my new Forest Grove home.  With such a history, and a tendency toward metaphor, I kept an extra careful eye on those plants as they grew in the raised bed garden that summer: a slow start, one seedling eaten by slugs, a bout of powdery mildew.  But they grew right through all of that, through tough clay soil and no small number of weeds. Through some smokey hot August days and into the drizzling Oregon fall.  By the time Noah moved permanently back to the US and joined me in the above-garage apartment we referred to as The Treehouse, we had an impressive basketful of striped oblong "unauthorized cucurbita" fruits: the first Delicata harvest.  

This year, we planted an entire 100-square foot bed of them, covering them with protective cloth through early and late season frosts, still with a watchful eye.  They produced at least 100 pounds, and we have entered full squash-eating season with delight.  They are one of the best squash for simply cutting in half and baking in the oven, then eating with butter and salt, a dash of pesto, or cheese, or maple syrup, depending on your squash-eating inclinations.  You might not expect romance in a winter squash. I never did.  But it's the surprises in the garden and the growing that are the best gifts.