Photo By: Tanya Kucak/Special to the Town Crier
If you’re a seed saver, you know it’s hard to save squash seeds if you grow a variety of heirlooms. That’s because bees can cross-pollinate winter and summer squash varieties that are in the same species. The fruits of the current-season won’t be affected, but if you plant your saved seeds, chances are you won’t get the fruit you expected.
One way around this problem is to plan ahead. If you choose your varieties so that you have one of each species, you may be able to save seeds – unless someone is growing another squash within a quarter- to a half-mile. In that case, put organza bags over the flowers and hand-pollinate them. If that sounds too complicated, buy seeds or plant a squash that isn’t one of the common species.
The most common species of open-pollinated squash plants include:
• Cucurbita pepo: most summer squash and pumpkins; spaghetti, acorn and delicata squashes; gourds
• C. moschata: butternut squashes, Trombocino Rampicante
• C. maxima: Rouge Vif d’Etampes (Cinderella pumpkin); Jarrahdale, hubbard, kabocha, buttercup and turban squashes
Last year I grew an interesting squash that’s a different species and does not hybridize with other squashes: shark fin melon, also called malabar squash or chilacayote (C. ficifolia). The seedling was a gift I received in midseason. Still, it grew faster and was more vigorous than the other squash plants in the same small garden bed, and I spent time cutting it back and giving the other plants room to grow. It needs a full season to produce mature seeds, though.
Left to itself, reportedly a single vine can grow 50-70 feet and produce 50 fruits. (I got four.) It would be a good choice as a quick and prolific summer groundcover. The name shark fin comes from the attractive green and white pattern on the rind and from its use in Asian cuisine, where the stringy white squash is used in shark fin soup.
Its exceptionally hard shell makes it a good keeper. I ate one that was stored at room temperature for more than six months. It’s supposed to stay good for at least two years.
To open a shark fin melon, I was advised to drop it on the floor. I went outside, dropped it on a stone patio, and it bounced. I dropped it a few more times with vigor, and finally it cracked. Once the thin shell was cracked, it was easy to work a knife under the shell and remove the meat.
Inside I discovered stringy white squash. Raw, it reminded me of the white part of a watermelon, the flavorful crunchy part just below the sweet pink part. Cooked, it retained the crunchy strings. I added chunks to lentil stew and froze some to eat later.
Both the white squash and the black seeds are used in desserts and beverages in traditional Mexican and South American cuisine. Intriguingly, the French have used it to make angel-hair marmalade.