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Are Volunteer Squash Secure to Eat?

I’ve a farmers’ market buddy who calls her volunteer squash “backyard whimsy.” This time of yr, after I see a random squash plant pop up in our compost pile, I consider her and smile. Whereas their look is a enjoyable shock, an essential query to ask is whether or not volunteer squash are fit for human consumption.

Many gardeners will inform you that the perfect squash they’ve ever eaten was from a volunteer plant. One in every of our favorites from a couple of years again seemed like a combination between a yellow summer season squash and a ‘Carnival’ winter selection. It had a stunning, clean, tan inside flesh excellent for roasting. Nevertheless, it doesn’t at all times end up that manner. 

Let’s speak about the way to know if these misfits are fit for human consumption or if we must always allow them to be.

The Quick Reply

The brief reply is that volunteer squash could be fit for human consumption, however they won’t be! Eat them solely at your individual threat. Fortunately, there’s a easy check that helps you establish which of them are seemingly protected to devour and which aren’t, and a few strategies you need to use to lower their prevalence.

The Lengthy Reply

A wooden box is filled with a colorful variety of squashes of various colors and shapes. In the background, lush, green squash leaves are scattered on the ground, basking in sunshine.
Over millennia, squash advanced from inedible kinds, altering in taste, dimension, and bitterness.

1000’s of years in the past, squash was inedible to people. Since then, it has gone by means of many variations of itself, ranging in taste, use, dimension, form, bitterness, and taste. People have bitterness receptors that inform them which meals might not be protected for consumption, and this backyard fruit runs the gamut on bitterness ranges. 

Some meals comprise a compound known as cucurbitacin that’s fit for human consumption at regular ranges. Nevertheless, these ranges improve below sure circumstances, leading to poisonous meals

A Transient Historical past of Wild Squash Evolution

A pile of pumpkins of various sizes and colors sits inside a wooden box. In the background, there's hay that is light brown in color which provides a soft, natural backdrop for the pumpkins.
This crop was as soon as inedible to people.

Historians imagine that squash has been domesticated about six totally different instances globally. People initially didn’t devour it however fairly used it as a device or container due to its bitter taste.

Nevertheless, massive mastodons that roamed through the Pleistocene epoch had fewer bitterness receptors. They might crush the exhausting exteriors and get to the nutritious heart. They unfold the seeds and gave squash an opportunity to proceed evolving, making these creatures an enormous a part of this crop’s survival. 

Enjoyable truth: The seeds that people dropped at the Americas did go extinct of their native habitat resulting from local weather change and the overhunting of untamed animals who unfold their seeds. This implies the pumpkins you understand at present have genes of Cucurbita cultivated by people about 10,000 years in the past.

What Is A Volunteer?

A close-up of a zucchini plant growing in a garden. The vegetable is vibrant yellow in color and has a yellow flower in it. It sits amidst the lush green leaves and stalks of the plant.
Squash can sprout from discarded seeds in your compost pile.

A volunteer is a time period used for squash, melon, or pumpkins whose seed germinated after being discarded right into a compost pile, dropped from a fruit, or carried away and buried by a chicken or critter. Principally, it’s a plant that confirmed up the place you didn’t deliberately plant it.

It’s in all probability no shock to house gardeners to discover a random pumpkin plant rising from the compost pile. Typically, these comprise fruit; different instances, they’re principally vine.

One thing about life being created out of dying is soothing to me, so I typically depart them be, watching curiously to see what kind of fruit will set. The jury on whether or not this squash was cross-pollinated through the earlier season can be out till the fruit matures. 


A close-up of a bee covered in pollen sitting on top of a yellow flower. The flower is likely a type of daisy, as it has a yellow center and white petals.
Identification is difficult till maturity.

Cross-pollination happens when pollen from a male flower of 1 kind of squash is transferred to the feminine flower of one other kind. The present season’s fruit is produced from the feminine flower’s ovule and won’t be altered even when the pollen from the male is a unique selection.

Nevertheless, the ensuing seed contained in the fruit could comprise female and male genes and specific facets of every. The plant that grows from it is going to be a mixture of the 2 plant mother and father. 

Enjoyable truth: The method above is how new cultivars are created!  

How Cross-Pollination Works

Squash refers to summer season squash, zucchini, winter squash, pumpkins, melons, and different gourds. They’re all in the identical plant household, Cucurbitaceae, and are unisexual. This implies they comprise each female and male flowers. They require a pollinating insect to come back alongside and switch pollen from one flower to the opposite to kind fruit.

Because of this, cross-pollination is widespread, particularly in backyard plots the place a number of totally different sorts of cucurbits are being grown. Anybody who saves seeds has seemingly planted what they thought was zucchini that turned out to be “backyard whimsy.”  

When seeds are dispersed from discarded vegetation or moved by a critter, new vegetation can simply germinate. When fruit from the plant begins to mature, you could discover it appears to be like totally different from others you’ve seen earlier than. It’s nearly a assure it gained’t be the range you picked from the seed catalog.

Bear in mind, one mum or dad may very well be a winter squash, and the opposite may very well be a summer season squash. The fruit’s exterior could seem like both, and also you gained’t know what’s inside till you chop it open! 

Professional tip: If the outside of a volunteer appears to be like like a gourd, strive curing it for fall décor!

Varieties That Can Cross-Pollinate

A close-up of a zucchini plant growing in dark brown soil. The vegetable is yellow-green in color and has several yellow flowers on it.
Cross-pollination for these vegetation solely happens inside the similar species, not between totally different species like cucumbers.

So that is the place it will get fascinating. Not all squash can scientifically cross-pollinate, solely these inside the similar species, which ought to ease your gardening coronary heart a bit of. 

Cross-pollination can occur if in case you have any pairing from the next teams in a small house:  

  • Members of Cucurbita pepo: Zucchini, Yellow Crookneck, Acorn, Spaghetti, Patty Pan, Delicata, varied pumpkins, and gourds
  • Members of Cucurbita maxima: Butternut, Buttercup, Banana, Hubbard, and Turban
  • Members of Cucumis melo: Muskmelon (aka cantaloupe), Charentais (French cantaloupe), honeydew, Casaba (winter melon), Armenian Cucumber; Snake melon

Though squash is in the identical household as cucumbers (Cucurbitaceae), cross-pollination between the 2 species is not possible

Methods to Forestall Cross-Pollination For Saving Seeds

A close-up of a brown plastic pot with some pumpkin seeds atop. The soil in the pot is loamy and moist. In the background, scattered dark brown soil is seen.
It’s exhausting to keep away from cross-pollination in a house backyard.

Usually, a half mile to a mile is the gap between crops in the identical household that may scale back the danger of cross-pollination. Nevertheless, not many people have that luxurious!

The very best method is to develop a couple of varieties and hope for the perfect. Cross-pollination, theoretically, is kind of uncommon. However if you wish to get severe about saving seeds and guarantee their genes are pure, comply with the following tips. 

How To Hand-Pollinate

A close-up of an old brush being used to pollinate a vibrant yellow squash flower. The brush is being used to transfer pollen from the male part of the flower to the female part.
Cowl vegetation with insect netting or tape flowers earlier than they open to stop cross-pollination.
  1. Cowl your vegetation with insect netting to create a barrier that can maintain pollinating bugs out. Alternatively, you may tape flowers to stop them from opening. Do that when the flowers are nonetheless principally inexperienced and stiff, exhibiting a little bit of orange coloring. As soon as open, bugs will pollinate; on this case, we need to keep away from this.
  2. Early morning, earlier than bugs are out and about, take a small, clear paintbrush to your squash patch and uncover or un-tape your patch.
  3. Dab the paintbrush contained in the male flower to take away some pollen.
  4. Switch pollen to the stigma (the spherical, sticky, yellow piece within the center, resembling a bulb) within the feminine flower. That is greatest if achieved quickly after the feminine flower opens within the morning (4 hours or much less). The humidity is highest, which helps the pollen stick.
  5. Pull the insect netting again over your patch or re-tape the flowers shut.

Repeat this a couple of instances every week or every day in the event you’d like. You’ll be able to take away the insect netting or baggage when you see that the fruit has set. Mark your vegetation in order that you understand which of them had been pollinated by hand. The seeds from these will keep true to the mum or dad plant.

The feminine flower is the one which kinds the fruit. Establish it by the swelling on the base earlier than the fruit kinds. The “showy” male flower has a pollen-filled stamen within the heart. Chances are you’ll discover extra male flowers resulting from their essential position in pollination.

Wait till your squash is sort of over-ripe earlier than harvesting for seed-saving. This can guarantee correct seed maturity. 

What Makes Volunteer Squash Probably Harmful

A squirrel is seen munching the inside of an opened-up pumpkin. The rodent is sitting on the ground and holding the pumpkin in its paws, eating the seeds and flesh of the pumpkin.
Cucurbit household vegetation comprise cucurbitacin, a compound that may make squash bitter.

As I briefly talked about above, the cucurbit household accommodates a compound known as cucurbitacin. In cultivated varieties, mammals not often detect very low ranges of cucurbitacin.

Nevertheless, if squash vegetation are below stress, the extent of cucurbitacin could also be a lot larger, making the bitterness extra apparent and sounding the security alarms. Our capability to sense and react to bitterness is an adaptation that retains us protected.

What Causes Cucurbitacin to Enhance?

Several ripe pumpkins are seen seemingly trying to thrive in a very dry field. The field is full of orange pumpkins of various sizes.
Hostile circumstances like drought or excessive climate can elevate cucurbitacin ranges, resulting in bitterness.

Like many different crops, unusual issues can occur when vegetation are below demanding circumstances. In instances of extended drought, poor pollination, or excessive rain, vegetation will go right into a high-stress state, and common actions akin to pollination, regular progress habits, and copy can be affected. 

When rising circumstances are lower than ultimate, cucurbitacin ranges could improve, inflicting bitterness. This consists of drought circumstances, extended warmth or chilly, heavy rainfall, improper spacing or fertility, and even lack of house. 

How To Take a look at Volunteer Squash For Secure Consumption

A close-up image of a vibrant orange butternut squash sitting on top of a cutting board. The squash is being peeled and sliced with a knife.
Do a style check however monitor for signs after consumption, and search medical assist if wanted.

If you wish to know in case your volunteer is edible, take a pattern fruit and reduce a small slice with a clear knife. Then, place it in your tongue for a number of seconds, noticing any bitterness coming by means of. Whether it is bitter, take away the fruit instantly, and do NOT devour the squash. If you don’t style any bitterness, you could select to eat it, however achieve this at your individual threat! 

Search medical consideration if in case you have any questionable signs after consuming, even when it tasted regular. 

Poisonous Squash Syndrome

A close-up of two desert squashes or Cucurbita palmata growing in dry soil. The fruits are about the same size and they are green in color.
Consuming an excessive amount of cucurbitacin can result in sickness.

If somebody eats an excessive amount of squash that’s excessive in cucurbitacin, they could turn into in poor health. Signs embrace vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach ache. Excessive instances, though uncommon, could cause swelling of the liver, gallbladder, kidney, and pancreas. 

You probably have lately eaten a volunteer and assume you’re exhibiting indicators of poisonous squash syndrome, search a health care provider’s help instantly

Sickness and dying brought on by cucurbitacin toxicity are extremely uncommon as a result of people sometimes cease consuming one thing that tastes bitter, particularly if it’s one thing that doesn’t often style this fashion. 

Closing Ideas

Cross-pollinated squash vegetation can create funky-looking fruits, nice for shows, decorative gardens, or experimental aspect dishes. However beware. Excessive ranges of cucurbitacin could cause bitterness in fruits and Poisonous Squash Syndrome, resulting in discomfort and, in very uncommon instances, dying. In case you select to devour your volunteer squash, do the bitterness check first. Then, eat at your individual threat.



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