Acorn Squash

Fun With a Mass Cross

I can't tell you how exciting it is to produce your own garden adapted varieties.  It's like discovering a secret that plant breeders have known and kept to themselves.  Breeding vegetables can be fun.  Case in point: Acorn Squash.  Acorn squash are actually stubby zucchinis, odd shaped pumpkins, less crazy looking scallop squash, they're bigger Jack-Be-Littles or bloated delicata squash.  The thing about acorn squash is that they are all these things.  They are all members of the same species, Cucurbita pepo.  Pepo meaning a hard shelled berry.  Like the hard shell that the summer zucchini you overlooked get when left in the garden until fall.

Long Island Seed's new"Acorn Gene Pool"

Long Island Seed's new"Acorn Gene Pool"

Acorn squash are just so flexible genetically.  Cornell hit it right on when they began transferring bright stripes and bold colors into their acorn squash perhaps because they were working with a beautiful delicata squash cross that kept segregating into an acorn shape.  Maybe it's not as simple as that, but acorn squash are enjoying a kind of revival in the culinary community because they're not just dark green and stringy anymore.  The Gill Brothers developed a terrific golden acorn squash many years ago and there are a few white ones that are nice to grow including a favorite of mine from many years ago selected by Glenn Drowns of Sandhill Preservation Center;   but now, I do believe that people are looking for varieties like Harlequin, Celebration and Carnival because of their good looks, disease resistance, texture and most of all, their flavor. 

I have tremendous admiration for the public sector breeders who work with interspecies crosses in order to impart disease resistance or develop compact plants without sacrificing good quality fruit.  It often requires years of patient work along with many failures.  When they finally have the characteristics that they want then they work to stabilize the characteristics so that the farmer isn't surprised by off-types that aren't marketable.  It's not all fun for the public breeder.  Indeed, it's a job that requires many skills and a good foundation in genetics and plant sciences.
 

It is fun for me though.  I'm nonchalant about my ignorance.  You see, I use the material from the public breeding programs.  Sure, I like the disease resistance and creamy texture of one of the Cornell acorns.  Make it one parent.  I like the amazing sweetness of the acorn from Oregon State University.  Another parent.  The bush habit from University of New Hampshire is sure nice.  And then those colors and patterns.  Coming up...one mass cross.  What we do best at Flanders Bay Farm is mix up the gene pool.  I sometimes hate myself for being so sacrilegious in a breeding sense.  After all, these great breeders often spend a large part of their lives perfecting the perfect acorn squash and here I am adding its genes into the pool of other acorns with the nonchalance of preparing a tossed salad.

Kent Whealy, founder of the Seed Saver's Exchange once came to visit me on his way to Russia many years ago.  He had just received the MacArthur Foundation Award also appropriately known as the "genius" award and was using some of the money that goes along with the honor to go to Europe and help out others who were trying to preserve their endangered heritage varieties.  We had a great visit over local wine and mussels and then I brought him into my seed room.  Look at this.  I showed him this jar ofWinter Squash seed.  A mixture of beautifully diverse seed from the Hopi, Tarahumara, and Maori and treasured heirlooms from generations of seedsavers.  I was proud of being able to market all these varieties in one low cost packet.  It was 1991 and that was what my Long Island Seed Company was known for:  Genetically Diverse Seed Blends.  I could see the look on Kent's face.  Like you have an olive pit in your mouth and you're too kind to just spit it out.  We spent much of the remainder of the visit discussing the merits of Paul Simon's album, "Graceland", something we both agreed on instead of the heresy of mixing up seeds.

I'm not sure if Kent realized that I multiplied every rare variety I obtained, hand pollinating and keeping it true to type in order to preserve it before I would mix a small part of my sample into the jar of seed I made the packets from.  This is before I started the mass crossing that typifies my work today. 

It's still the same today though, for each breeding accomplishments, there is a box of dozens of seed samples that were used to produce it.  I still stand on the shoulders of giants and I honor them in my own way by trying to preserve the original material.  But I do have fun mixing it up!

Can you guess the parentage of the acorns below?

1. white with green stripes

1. white with green stripes

3.  green moss pattern on cream

3.  green moss pattern on cream

5. small yellow       

5. small yellow       

7. orange and yellow stripe dumpling  

7. orange and yellow stripe dumpling  

2. dark green with yellow "eyes"

2. dark green with yellow "eyes"

4. deep orange with green pattern

4. deep orange with green pattern

6. deep green ripens with gold highlights

6. deep green ripens with gold highlights

8. cream with green stripes, some orange  

8. cream with green stripes, some orange