When did the squash first come to Ireland?

Now we know: Originally from Central America these fleshy fruits are now an autumn staple

 ‘Squash’ is a version of a Narragansett Native American word, askutasquash, which translates to ‘eaten raw or uncooked’. Photograph: iStock

‘Squash’ is a version of a Narragansett Native American word, askutasquash, which translates to ‘eaten raw or uncooked’. Photograph: iStock

 

As we slide from September into October, the change in seasons sees many of us reaching for squash and pumpkin to bulk up our soups, stews and autumnal salads. Though they can grow here, these tough-shelled softies are not native to Ireland. So what’s the story behind the squash and how did it end up on our shores?

This tale begins with the cucurbita (Latin for gourd). The cucurbita family includes squash and pumpkins, and is native to the expansive region of Central America encompassing the Andes, Mexico and Guatemala.

In an article called The Domestication of Cucurbita, published by Economic Botany, Dr Michael Nee notes the domestication of gourds goes back at least 8,000 years. Evidence of the domestication of the gourd known as the cucurbita pepo, or winter squash, was found during excavations of the Guilá Naquitz cave in Oaxaca, Mexico, in the 1960s and 1970s. Paired with evidence on other archeological sites of other crops in the region, this Guilá Naquitz cave dig tells us that gourds were being grown in this region of the Americas 4,000 years before maize and beans.

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According to the Smithsonian, the name “squash” is a version of a Narragansett Native American word, askutasquash, which translates to “eaten raw or uncooked”. The Smithsonian notes that “Virginia and New England settlers were not very impressed by the Indians’ squash until they had to survive the harsh winter, at which point they adopted squash and pumpkins as staples. Squashes were baked, cut and moistened with animal fat, maple syrup, and honey.”

The first known image of a cucurbita in Europe dates from 1503-1508, according to researchers Paris, Daunay, Pitrat and Janick, who wrote about their findings in the Annals of Botany: “The first known images of cucurbita outside of the Americas had long been believed to be two illustrations of pumpkins of cucurbita pepo that appeared in De Historia Stirpium, 50 years after Columbus’ first voyage to the New World.”

Today, in Irish supermarkets, your squash may come from many places including Greece, Portugal or Argentina. It is possible to grow your own cucurbita in Ireland, with some knowledge, guidance and care, all of which you’ll find in abundance in Michael Kelly’s writings at GIY Ireland. There are tips on the organisation’s website (giy.ie) – just search for squash.

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