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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"
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
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 of Winter 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
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
dark green with yellow "eyes"
3. green moss pattern on cream
4. deep orange with green pattern
5. small yellow
deep green ripens with gold highlights
7. orange and yellow stripe dumpling
8. cream with green stripes, some orange