Beloved by the native peoples of North and South America for their mild, fine-textured fruit and their use as storage containers and bowls, squash (Cucurbita spp.) have been grown for thousands of years. Of the six different species of this astoundingly large group of plants, the squash commonly called cushaw are members of two separate species: Cucurbita mixta and Cucurbita moschata. With their large size -- some cultivars reach a mature weight of 40 pounds -- and their robust vines, these plants of near-mythic proportions are tailor-made for an adventurous family gardening project.
Cucurbita Mixta Group
The spreading vines of the cushaws in the Cucurbita mixta group are covered with large, fuzzy leaves. The mature fruit contains white or tan seeds and the leaves are somewhat lighter in intensity than cushaws in the Cucurbita moschata group. Some of the known heirloom cultivars include: “Albino Hopi,” “Albine Pepita,” “Australian,” “Cochiti Puebla,” “Gila,” “Gila Cliff Dweller,” “Gold Striped, “Green Striped,” “Hopi,” “Hopi Black Green,” “Longneck,” “Magdalena Striped,” “Neckless,” “Old Fashioned,” “Papalote Ranch,” “Parral,” “Pure White,” “Santa Domingo,” “Solid Green,” “Tri-Color,” “White,” “White Crookneck or White Honathan” and “Winter.”
The Cucurbita moschata group includes only three cultivars: “Golden Cushaw,” “Orange Cushaw” and “Orange Striped Cushaw.” They are recognized by hairy leaves with pointed tips growing along vigorously spreading vines, eventually producing fruit with yellow, orange, green or white stripes. Where the stem meets the fruit, you will notice a distinct flair. Like all cushaws, the sweet, mild flavor lends itself to roasting or baking. Pureed, it works beautifully in a “pumpkin” pie or as a squash butter seasoned with brown sugar, vanilla and pumpkin pie spice and spread on warm, buttered toast. The seeds can be roasted and salted for a crunchy protein snack.
After all danger of frost has past and the soil temperature is at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit, cushaw squash seeds can be sown in fertile, well-drained soil. Gardeners in the Northeast can plant around June 1, while Mid-Atlantic growers can sow seeds April 15 through May 1. If you live in the Southeast or Gulf Coast, set April 15 to May 15 as your planting dates. Upper Midwest gardeners have a long planting window -- May 1 through June 15. In the Southwest, plant anytime from March 15 to June 15, and Central West Coast gardeners have from April 15 to June 1 to plant. The only area of the country where cushaws won’t grow is the maritime Northwest -- the weather is not hot enough for the fruit to reach maturity.
Harvest your cushaws before the first frost, leaving at least a 1-inch stem on each fruit. Fruit left in the garden when the temperature dips below freezing don’t store well and can develop spots. If you live in a frost-free area, gather your squash when the stem starts drying out and you can no longer dent the fruit with your thumbnail -- thicker-skinned fruit stores better. Wait a few weeks after harvest before eating your first squash; you will be rewarded with sweeter fruit. Kept cool and dry, these excellent storage squash should keep for at least four to six months.