Issue: July 29, 1996

Strange-looking squash

Question: In my compost pile, where everything and anything that's biodegradable finds its way, I often dump peels and seeds from Waltham squash, of which we consume a lot. This spring, to my surprise, I had a lot of squash seedlings growing all over my garden. These apparently came from seeds in the compost I spread on the garden. I kept my cool and proceeded to transplant these seedlings into a designated patch and I now have a bountiful crop of squash happily growing. But...

..Maybe half of them look like honest to goodness Waltham squash, some are huge and beautiful, but the other half is quite different. Some are long-necked. Some are dark green with lighter stripes. Some are dark green with yellow stripes. Others are in between. I recall having read someplace this is what sometimes happens when seeds from a hybrid plant are allowed to grow again.

My question is: Are they all safely edible?

Answer: To answer the prime question. Yes, they should all be edible. However, they may not all be equal in quality.

Dr. George Dickerson, Extension Horticulture Specialist, pointed out that Waltham is known as one of the best quality winter squash. He suggested that the squash you ate may have been from a hybrid plant which had genetic influences from other squash varieties to make them earlier, larger, or otherwise alter their characteristics. Plants grown from seeds from these plants will exhibit genetic segregation, showing varying degrees of genetic influence from the parent plants. Some will be excellent, of high quality. Others may exhibit lesser qualities such as stringy flesh, poorer taste, or less desirable plant characteristics, such as excessive vine growth. All should be edible.

If you enjoy a challenge and have sufficient garden space, you can save the seeds from the best (you choose which characteristics you consider best - plant characteristics, flesh characteristics, or flavor) and plant these seeds next year. Over a period of years you may be able to stabilize the variety to consistently exhibit your chosen "best" qualities by always selecting seed from the squash that exhibit the desired qualities. In the interim, you should see increases in the percentage of desirable plants. You must be sure that "your" squash are not cross pollinated with pollen from other squash varieties, or the increased variability will again be exhibited.

Results like those produced by planting seed from hybrid squash may be seen in squash grown in a garden containing several varieties of squash or in a garden visited by bees from a neighboring garden growing different types of squash. Cross pollination will not affect the quality of the harvested squash. However, plants grown from seeds of these squash will exhibit effects of the genetic variability.

If you want consistent results each year, it is best to buy new seed each year. If you enjoy the surprise and challenge presented by cross pollination, plant a few seeds saved from the previous year's squash and see what you get.