Eau de cucurbit

In their natural state, some pumpkins and squash have an incredible scent nearly the opposite of pumpkin spice.

Their flowers and flesh exude a floral fragrance, kind of like gardenia, lilac or jasmine.

Fragrant C. maxima (Eastern Rise kabocha) blossoms above an immature C. pepo (Long Pie pumpkin) fruit.

It doesn’t matter if you are inhaling a blossom in the summer, or steaming chunks in the winter. You might get intoxicated. You might even start humming Lilac Wine while making dinner. None of that has ever happened to me, of course.

I’m not alone, others have noticed the sweet and heady smell of some pumpkins and squash. Alas, I have not yet discovered a scholarly review of the fragrance of winter squashes or their relatives in the global Cucurbitacea family.

Pumpkins and squash are in the genus Cucurbita which is dominated by three main species, C. maxima, C. moschata, and C. pepo. All of these plants originated in the Americas and were spread around the world after first contact by white Europeans. More than half of the world’s cucurbit production is now in India and China.

I’ve grown all three species in Anchorage, Alaska, and so far, I’ve only noticed a strong floral fragrance from Cucurbita maxima. More specifically, from the Chinese kabocha cultivar, Eastern Rise, which I’ve been growing for two years.

Eastern Rise kabochas store well in a cool garage.

I’ve sniffed but haven’t noticed a strong floral scent emanating from any of my Cucurbita pepo plants. This species includes summer squashes, gourds, and many other varieties.

I’m not surprised that my C. maxima flowers smell so good. According to Deborah Madison, the maxima group, including Buttercups, Hubbards, Kabocha, and Red Kuri, have some of the sweetest, most delicious flavor.

Per my taste buds, the seedy flesh from the bulb-shaped ends of Tromboncino squash, a C. moschata cultivar, has a delicate melon scent. The flesh isn’t quite as sweet as a melon, but it is easy to cut up raw and eat like fruit. Butternut squash is a moschata cultivar, too, but I’ve never sniffed it or eaten it raw!

Finally, I’ve grown an Asian plant in the Cucurbitacea family with flowers that smell even more intoxicating than my kabocha.

I’m referring to bitter melon (Momordica charatia) which has rather small and delicate flowers. Only a couple blossoms will make a greenhouse smell divine. Just don’t expect the flesh to smell or taste any bit similar.

Readers, have you noticed the floral smell of certain cucurbits? Please help me feel less alone by sharing your observations in the comments.

New year, new seeds

I have a confession to make—I’ve mostly kicked the seed catalog addiction.

Yes, I still enjoy thumbing or clicking through my Johnny’s, Fedco and Territorial seed catalogs. But mostly, I’m scanning through to stock up on a favorite variety or investigate anything marked “NEW.”

Nevertheless, I need to consult these catalogs for new varieties every year. I did go a little overboard in 2019. Here are some of last year’s seed experiments with a photo gallery and a short recap on how they did.

How’d they do?

  • Guinea Bean/Snake Gourd – did not germinate, will try again (I blame improper technique). I bought the seeds at Monticello—they were introduced by Thomas Jefferson and are still grown in his garden.
  • Bitter Melon – created a beautiful vine with perfume-y flowers and a few melons in the unheated greenhouse, which I did not eat but enjoyed anyway; many people were surprised that I could grow these in an unheated greenhouse in Alaska.
  • Eastern Rise Winter Squash – healthy vines that produced few female flowers and thus not many squash (not the variety’s fault) in my low tunnel.
  • Pan di Zucchero Chicory – delicious bitter green that tended to bolt; only one plant grew completely into its columnar form, and I churned the rest into pesto.
  • Fiero Radicchio – another delicious bitter green that tended to bolt; these hardly grew into the intended tall form, but the leaves were beautiful and good to eat.
  • Baltisk Rod Purpurkal Kale – deep purple kale giants that maintained well in the garden, almost to Christmas.
  • Root Grex Beet – grown in pure compost, they produced the biggest, most colorful beetroots and large leaves I’ve ever grown myself.
  • Valley Girl Tomato – a good variety that will join the regular rotation; it doesn’t seem to get as stressed out in my greenhouse as some other northern favorites.
  • Delft Blue Nigella – oops, forgot to plant this one!
  • Adam Gherkin Cucumber – my favorite new cucumber variety; I like pickling varieties without thick skin or large bumps; this European-style pickler grew very fast and uniformly in my low tunnel.
  • White Half-Runner Beans — good for shelling beans; still grow pretty tall but a little more manageable on a shorter trellis.
  • Ascent Peppers — these Thai-style peppers nearly took over the greenhouse; I was picking chiles until frost; unfortunately I stored the dried peppers in the cupboard not realizing they still had a little moisture in them. Mold!

Also last year I also had an amazing experience with a single Costata Romanesco zucchini plant given to me as a seedling. I’ve never received so many large but delicious zucchinis from one plant. This variety deserves its own raised bed.

What’s new for 2020? No secrets here.

This winter, I visited the Baker Creek heirloom seed store in Missouri, so many of my new seeds for 2020 were purchased in person rather than from a catalog. In continuation of my experiments with varieties likely to bolt (if planted early in the season), I purchased seed for a couple exotic radishes – Japanese wasabi and Sichuan Red Beauty. I also purchased Chinese Pink Celery and Queen of Malinalco Tomatillo.

On the herb front, I purchased wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and the Kapoor/Rama variety of holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), also known as tulsi basil.

I probably spent more time researching the herbs than the vegetables. On one hand, I was interested in growing a plot of different types of wormwood, but I found out that these species are likely to hybridize – something I don’t want. Also, at least four species of tulsi basil are available from online sellers, so I had to think about the preferred characteristics for my garden and kitchen. I opted for Kapoor/Rama, the main type grown in India, though now I’m sorting of wishing I had picked the Shyama/Krishna variety.

As usual, some of the “new” seeds I selected for the garden, greenhouse, and low tunnel in 2020 are pushing the envelope for our latitude/day length and climate. But that’s all part of the adventure.

Do tell if you have some experiences with the plants listed above or you’d like to dish on your own new seed selections for this year!