Mastodons ate Wild Squash

The scent of burning leaves and baking squash always reminds me of autumn.  I love the pulpy rich flavor of an orange-fleshed winter squash, dripping with melted butter and brown sugar.  Mastodons enjoyed squash too but ate them without the additional condiments.  The species of wild squash eaten by mastodons had a bitter rind.  Mastodons avoided eating this part of the squash by stepping  on the rind to break open the squash.  The mastodon would then pick up the nutritious seeds and pulp with its trunk and place the edible matter in its mouth.  The mastodon would later defecate the still viable seeds and spread the spawn of squash all over the landscape.  We know this because mastodon coprolites containing squash seeds (but not rinds) were recovered from the Aucilla River located in northwestern Florida.  Scientists were unable to identify the exact species of squash the mastodons ate.  The morphology of the seeds differs from all known species and may perhaps be either an extinct species or an extinct variety of an extant species.  Wild squash no longer occurs in this region of Florida, however, there are 2 species that live in south Florida.

The Okeechobee gourd (Cucurbita okeechobensis) was formerly common in an environment known as pond apple forests that grew south of Lake Okeechobee.  Pond apples (Anona glabra) are a species of pawpaw–a fruit mastodons surely also consumed.  The conversion of pond apple forests to agriculture destroyed 95% of this habitat, and the Okeechobee gourd is now listed as an endangered species.  William Bartram found this species growing along the St. John’s River in 1774, but this population wasn’t rediscovered until 1993.  The presence of this disjunct population is evidence the Okeechobee gourd was formerly more widespread.  The extinction of the mastodons as a dispersal agent probably explains the limited distributions of the Okeechobee gourd and other species of wild squash.

File:Cucurbita okeechob okeechob.jpg

The Okeechobee  gourd (Cucurbita okeechobensis) .  This species once had a greater distribution.  Seeds of an unknown species similar to this have been found in mastodon coprolites.

The Okeechobee gourd has an interesting ecological niche.  It prefers growing by lakes and rivers with fluctuating water levels. High water levels kill competing plant species.  Then during droughts, water levels recede, leaving bare soil where the Okeechobee gourd can sprout before having to compete with other pioneer species.  They also thrive on alligator nests because the great reptiles clear their composting nests of competing plants.  The vines of the Okeechobee gourd grow on pond apple, willow, cypress, buttonbush, elderberry, and common reed.  Marsh rabbits gnaw through the squash rinds and help distribute the seeds, but they are an inferior dispersal agent compared to mastodons.

The other species of wild squash found in south Florida is not native but was brought from South America by Indians thousands of years ago. Native Americans began cultivating squash at least 8000 years ago, long before they cultivated corn and beans.  The word, squash, is derived from the Naragansett Indian word askutasquash, literally meaning green-thing-eaten-raw, though I’m sure they also cooked this vegetable.  The Naragansetts lived in what today is Rhode Island and Massachusetts.  The variety of C. moschata found growing wild in south Florida is known as the “Seminole pumpkin.”  The Seminoles are descendents of Creek refugees who fled to the Everglades to escape the U.S. Army.  The Creeks brought this variety with them.  The Seminoles set up their habitations on oak hammocks, the islands of hardwood trees found in the Everglades marshes.  They cultivated squash by girdling oak trees and planting the squash seeds at the base of the dead trees.  The leafless trees allowed for sunny gardens.  The squash vines grew up the dead tree trunks, and the Indians harvested the fruit by climbing into the tree tops.  Trees on the outskirts of the garden were left ungirdled, and these provided a windbreak.  The Seminoles also grew Okeechobee gourds.  Though inedible, dried Okeechobee gourds served as ceremonial rattles.

 

Seminole pumpkins (Cucurbita moschata).  This is the exact same species as the butternut squash commonly sold in grocery stores.

There are 27 species of squash in the Cucurbita genus.  Although many wild species sport the common name of gourd, they aren’t true gourds.  All squashes belong to the genus Cucurbita, while true gourds found in Africa belong the the Lagenaria genus.  Both genuses are in the same subfamily, so they are related.  The Cucurbita genus evolved from a common ancestor of Sechium edule–the chayote squash which is not a true squash but rather closely related to an ancestor of true squashes.

Many of the cultivated squash species commonly consumed by humans include many different varieties that differ surprisingly in appearance.  C. pepo includes zucchini, yellow crookneck squash, delicata squash, acorn squash, and field pumpkins. C. maxima includes giant pumpkins, Hubbard squash, Kabocha squash, and banana squash.  C. argyrosperma includes cushaw squash.  C. moschata includes butternut squash and Seminole pumpkins.  To add to the confusion, C. pepo can hybridize with C. moschata and C. argyrosperma; and C. maxima can hybridize with C. moschata.  The wild stinking gourd (C. foettidisima) can hybridize with all the edible species.  Four species of wild squash are perennials with strong roots, while the rest, including all the cultivated species, are annuals.

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The top squash in this photo is a butternut squash I grew from a seed I obtained from one I bought in a grocery store. The bottom squash is a delicata squash I purchased at a farmer’s market.  I tried growing delicata squash from seeds but the squash bugs destroyed them.  Both are known as winter squash but they are actually 2 different species.  Butternut squash is (C. moschata), the same species as the Seminole pumpkin.  Delicata squash is the same species as summer squash–C. pepo, though it tastes quite different.  

Cucurbita pepo collage 1.png

Field pumpkins, yellow squash, zucchini, pattypan squash, and acorn squash are all the same species–Cucurbita pepo.

Giant pumpkins, Hubbard squash, buttercup squash, Kabocha squash, and banana squash are all the same species–Cucurbita maxima.  This specimen almost weighs a ton. 

 File:Cucurbita argyrosperma 2.jpg

Most canned pumpkin is actually made from cushaw squash–Cucurbita argyrosperma.

My favorite way to cook summer squash is to quarter them, put them in a baking pan well greased with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and roast at 400 F for 30 minutes.  Then, I toss them with balsamic vinegar or lemon juice.  This brings out the flavor better than any other method.  I also like to slice them into rounds and sautee them in a pan at high heat till brown and season with salt, pepper, and chopped nuts.  Cooking winter squash is even more simple.  I just split them in half and bake in a pan of water at 350 F till tender and serve with plenty of butter and brown sugar.  Baked butternut squash pulp makes a far better pie than the watery “pumpkin pie” filling sold in cans.

I’ve had great success growing zucchini.  One year, I harvested over 100.  The next year, I decided not to add chemical fertilizer to the soil because I was being cheap.  I harvested 0.  I’ve had a harder time growing winter squash in my garden.  I did successfully grow cushaw squash once.  One summer, I harvested half a bushel of butternut squash that I didn’t even plant on purpose–they germinated from compost I added to my garden.

Reference:

http://www.fws.gov/verobeach/MSRPPDFs/Okeechobee.PDF

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One Response to “Mastodons ate Wild Squash”

  1. Wild Squash (Cucurbita sp.) was Abundant during the Pleistocene | GeorgiaBeforePeople Says:

    […] https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2014/09/28/mastodons-ate-wild-squash/ […]

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