Gardeners know the Lagenaria Squash, not so much by their good taste, but as bottle gourds that can be cured and turned into ornamentals (penguin or swan gourds), storage containers (bushel basket gourd) or fashionable attire (New Guinea penis sheath gourd). I went to Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania where some of my Botany students went on to become resident interns and were continuing their studies. One was working in the children's garden when I encountered her. One of the things that I became much amused by was a tunnel shaped trellis covered with vines of cucuzzi caravazzi (snake squash). In the late summer and fall, it became a highlight of the childrens garden. Loads of 3-4 foot squash hung down from the roof of the tunnel. Kids would just wildly run through the tunnel of hanging squash with delight and I did the same. We duplicated the tunnel at the farm last year which was a lot of fun for those who came to the farm stand.
This year we decided to find the best edible lagenaria and looked at varieties being developed by breeders in India and China. We're still evaluating them, but the one pictured above was surprisingly early and productive. Sometimes called Opu in India, it is a rampant climber that will sprawl across your yard if not provided with a trellis.
Long Island has a fairly large population of second and third generation Italians (my grandparents on my mom's side came to America from Italy in the late 1800's) and as a result, I grew up eating vegetables that were considered a bit strange in the 1950's even in the U.S. One of these was the cucuzzi squash. The vines of cucuzzi caravazzi (the Italian edible gourd or Snake Gourd) grew in a great mass that climbed up the back fence into the trees. I marveled at the 2-3 inch white flowers that opened at dusk and were pollinated by the hawk moths that visited during the night. We would harvest the immature foot long fruit for dinner; later, the ones we missed among the foliage and in the trees matured into three or four foot baseball bat fruits that hung down from the vines. These were prizes that we displayed on the front porch along with our best fall pumpkins.
We ate the immature cucuzzi fruit cooked in tomato sauce, fried with eggplant, and steamed with a spattering of olive oil or butter. They were just as good as zucchini squash, some say better because of firmer texture and a mild, never bitter taste. But they aren't a zucchini. They too, are Lagenaria Gourds.
We tend to think of zucchini squash as an Italian vegetable. In fact, the Italian Cocozelle (di Napoli) was the first "zucchini" to make it to the U.S. seed catalogs of the mid 1930's. Oddly, zucchini is Cucurbita pepo, a member of the pumpkin family and a new world species brought to Italy by European explorers. While much of Europe saw the pumpkins brought back from America as just that, hard shelled storage squash, the Italians viewed the green unripe fruit as; well, zucchini and ate them with gusto.
You see, the Italians were already eating cucuzzi squash and had been for centuries as were the Indians of southern Asia, the Vietnamese and Chinese (who call the squash "opu" or "opo"). Cucuzzi is old world and the lagenaria gourds have a long history of use in the Old World as food as well as for making storage containers and ornaments. The Italians quickly substituted the new pumpkin squash for Lagenaria squash and gradually bred their pumpkins to look more like little long green squashes. Why the quick transition from Lagenaria to Zucchini? The same reason we don't see the cucuzzi in the market much. It is a rampant viner, it needs support, it needs night flying insects to be pollinated, it needs warmth and a long growing period and it is just not as productive as the zucchini squash. But, oh, it is a squash for memories. Those who have tried the immature lagenaria squash prepared like zucchini give it high grades. One fruit can go a long way to feeding a crowd and the texture and flavor often surpass other summer squash. We like the lagenaria. But the new world zucchini bear more fruit quicker.