Are Volunteer Squash Safe to Eat?

I’ve a farmers’ market buddy who calls her volunteer squash “backyard whimsy.” This time of 12 months, once 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 suitable for eating.

Many gardeners will inform you that the perfect squash they’ve ever eaten was from a volunteer plant. Considered one of our favorites from a number of years again regarded like a combination between a yellow summer season squash and a ‘Carnival’ winter selection. It had a stunning, easy, tan inside flesh excellent for roasting. Nonetheless, it doesn’t all the time prove that manner. 

Let’s discuss easy methods to know if these misfits are suitable for eating or if we must always allow them to be.

The Quick Reply

The brief reply is that volunteer squash could be suitable for eating, however they may not be! Eat them solely at your personal threat. Fortunately, there’s a easy check that helps you establish which of them are doubtless protected to eat and which aren’t, and a few strategies you need to use to lower their prevalence.

The Lengthy Reply

Over millennia, squash advanced from inedible types, altering in taste, dimension, and bitterness.

Hundreds of years in the past, squash was inedible to people. Since then, it has gone by 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 referred to as cucurbitacin that’s suitable for eating at regular ranges. Nonetheless, these ranges improve beneath sure situations, leading to poisonous meals

A Temporary 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 eat it however somewhat used it as a device or container due to its bitter taste.

Nonetheless, massive mastodons that roamed throughout the Pleistocene epoch had fewer bitterness receptors. They might crush the exhausting exteriors and get to the nutritious middle. 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 reality: The seeds that people dropped at the Americas did go extinct of their native habitat on account of local weather change and the overhunting of untamed animals who unfold their seeds. This implies the pumpkins you already know at this time 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 hen or critter. Principally, it’s a plant that confirmed up the place you didn’t deliberately plant it.

It’s most likely no shock to residence gardeners to discover a random pumpkin plant rising from the compost pile. Generally, these comprise fruit; different instances, they’re principally vine.

One thing about life being created out of demise is soothing to me, so I usually depart them be, watching curiously to see what sort of fruit will set. The jury on whether or not this squash was cross-pollinated throughout the earlier season will probably 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 sort of squash is transferred to the feminine flower of one other sort. 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 distinct selection.

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

Enjoyable reality: 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 return alongside and switch pollen from one flower to the opposite to kind fruit.

For that reason, cross-pollination is frequent, particularly in backyard plots the place a number of totally different styles of cucurbits are being grown. Anybody who saves seeds has doubtless 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, chances are you’ll discover it appears to be like totally different from others you’ve seen earlier than. It’s virtually a assure it gained’t be the variability you picked from the seed catalog.

Keep in mind, one dad or mum could possibly be a winter squash, and the opposite could possibly be a summer season squash. The fruit’s exterior could appear 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, attempt 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 throughout the identical 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 throughout the identical species, which ought to ease your gardening coronary heart slightly. 

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

  • Members of Cucurbita pepo: Zucchini, Yellow Crookneck, Acorn, Spaghetti, Patty Pan, Delicata, numerous 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 unimaginable

How you can 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. Nonetheless, not many people have that luxurious!

The most effective strategy is to develop a number 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 pointers. 

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’ll be able to tape flowers to stop them from opening. Do that when the flowers are nonetheless principally inexperienced and stiff, displaying a little bit of orange coloring. As soon as open, bugs will pollinate; on this case, we wish 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 executed 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 number of instances every week or day by day should you’d like. You possibly can take away the insect netting or luggage when you see that the fruit has set. Mark your vegetation in order that you already know which of them have been pollinated by hand. The seeds from these will keep true to the dad or mum plant.

The feminine flower is the one which types the fruit. Determine it by the swelling on the base earlier than the fruit types. The “showy” male flower has a pollen-filled stamen within the middle. It’s possible you’ll discover extra male flowers on account of 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 Doubtlessly 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 incorporates a compound referred to as cucurbitacin. In cultivated varieties, mammals hardly ever detect very low ranges of cucurbitacin.

Nonetheless, if squash vegetation are beneath stress, the extent of cucurbitacin could also be a lot larger, making the bitterness extra apparent and sounding the security alarms. Our skill 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.
Antagonistic situations like drought or excessive climate can increase cucurbitacin ranges, resulting in bitterness.

Like many different crops, unusual issues can occur when vegetation are beneath anxious situations. In instances of extended drought, poor pollination, or excessive rain, vegetation will go right into a high-stress state, and common actions reminiscent of pollination, regular progress habits, and replica will probably be affected. 

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

How To Check Volunteer Squash For Protected 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 lower a small slice with a clear knife. Then, place it in your tongue for a number of seconds, noticing any bitterness coming by. Whether it is bitter, take away the fruit instantly, and do NOT eat the squash. If you don’t style any bitterness, chances are you’ll select to eat it, however accomplish that at your personal threat! 

Search medical consideration when 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 might turn out to be unwell. Signs embody vomiting, diarrhea, and belly ache. Excessive instances, though uncommon, may cause swelling of the liver, gallbladder, kidney, and pancreas. 

When you have not too long ago eaten a volunteer and suppose you’re displaying indicators of poisonous squash syndrome, search a physician’s help instantly

Sickness and demise attributable to cucurbitacin toxicity are extremely uncommon as a result of people usually cease consuming one thing that tastes bitter, particularly if it’s one thing that doesn’t normally style this manner. 

Ultimate 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 may cause bitterness in fruits and Poisonous Squash Syndrome, resulting in discomfort and, in very uncommon instances, demise. When you select to eat your volunteer squash, do the bitterness check first. Then, eat at your personal threat.

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