Top of page

Everyday Mysteries

« Back to Agriculture page

Question How did the squash get its name?


“Squash” comes from the Narragansett Native American word askutasquash, which means “eaten raw or uncooked.”

Fresh squash varieties at a farmer’s market. Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Squashes are one of the oldest known crops–10,000 years by some estimates of sites in Mexico. Since squashes are gourds, they most likely served as containers or utensils because of their hard shells. The seeds and flesh later became an important part of the pre-Columbian Indian diet in both South and North America. De Soto, Coronado, and Cartier all saw “melons” (probably squash) in the Americas.

Harvesting zucchini squash in Mechanicsville, VA.  U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA Flickr Photos).

Northeastern Native American tribes grew pumpkins, yellow crooknecks, patty pans, Boston marrows (perhaps the oldest squash in America still sold), and turbans. Southern tribes raised winter crooknecks, cushaws, and green and white striped sweet potato squashes. Native Americans roasted or boiled the squashes and pumpkins and preserved the flesh as conserves in syrup. They also ate the young shoots, leaves, flowers, and seeds.

Virginia and New England settlers were not very impressed by the Indians’ squash until they had to survive the harsh winter, at which point they adopted squash and pumpkins as staples. Squashes were baked, cut and moistened with animal fat, maple syrup, and honey.

Cinderella pumpkin at the USDA Farmers Market. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA Flickr Photos).

Squashes come in many different shapes and colors including tan, orange, and blue. There are many kinds of squashes, all part of the genus Cucurbita (Family Cucurbitaceae). The terms pumpkin, winter squash, and summer squash have been applied to fruits of different species.

Some of the many varieties of squashes at Kew Gardens IncrEdibles festival, 2013  Chiswick Chap, photographer, 2013, Wikimedia Commons
  • Cucurbita maxima (round, thick stems) are winter squash (buttercup, Hubbard, turban, winter pumpkins). Usually larger fruit with hard seeds, they ripen in the fall. We have to peel them. They can be stored for several months.
  • C. moschata (round stems) are also winter squash such as butternuts, musky winter squash, and the cushaw.
  • C. pepo (pentagonal, prickly stem) are summer squash: zucchini (Italian for sweetest), marrow, courgette (French), yellow squash, ornamental gourds, crookneck, spaghetti squash, and summer pumpkins. Usually soft edible shell and seeds, they ripen in summer and need to be eaten soon after harvest.
Boy and girl carving pumpkin into Jack-O’Lantern, c1872. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Fun Facts about Squash:

Small girl standing by vegetable exhibit at Custer County fair, Broken Bow, Nebraska. Solomon D. Butcher, photographer, 1886. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
  • An average pumpkin weighs 10-20 pounds, though the Atlantic Giant variety can weigh 400-600 pounds, enough for perhaps 300 pies!
  • Presidents Washington and Jefferson grew squash in their gardens.
  • The Hubbard squash was formally introduced to American gardens by James J. H. Gregory (1857) from Marblehead, Massachusetts. He became an authority on squashes, publishing in 1883, Squashes: how to grow them.
  • Squashes are a good source of minerals, carotenes and vitamin A, with moderate quantities of vitamins B and C. Summer squash is high in water content, thus low in calories.

And why is the game also called squash? It used to be called “Rackets” and a “squashy” soft ball constructed of thin rubber was used. It had a number of holes that caused the ball to collapse when hit hard.

Published: 11/19/2019. Author: Science Reference Section, Library of Congress

Have a question? Ask a science librarian