Winter Squash

Cucurbita maxima

Herbs gallery - Winter Squash

Several types of annual squashes from the genus Cucurbita are known under the collective name of winter squash. The name indicates the harvest time, which takes place during the winter. Unlike the summer squash, the fruit is allowed to fully mature, with a tough outer rind and hard seeds. An advantage of the mature fruits is that they can be stored for a long time and usually last the entire winter. The hard skin is too hard to be consumed and the squashes must be cooked before eating.

While winter squash is the generic English language term, the fruits are known as pumpkins in the dialects spoken in Australia and New Zealand.

These fruits are very rich in dietary fibers and provide complex carbohydrates, while being very low in calories. Squashes provide a great mix of vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin B1 (thiamine), folate, vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), vitamin B3 (niacin), vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid), vitamin C, copper, potassium, iron and manganese. They are also rich in beta-carotene, tryptophan, omega-3 fatty acids and dietary fibers. The content of beta-carotene can be estimated based on the color of the skin, with the dark fruits being a richer source.

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Many species of gourds that are only harvested at full maturity are known under the umbrella term of winter squashes. At this stage, they are protected by a very tough outer shell. This is very effective at protecting the pulp and allows the fruits to be stored for up to half a year. Some of the varieties known as winter squashes are the pumpkin, hubbard squash, turban squash, acorn squash, spaghetti squash and butternut squash.

The pumpkin is probably the most common type of winter squash. It has a very thick outer skin and a distinctive orange or dark yellow color. Sugar pumpkins and pie pumpkins are smaller in size and their flesh is sweet, so they serve as the base of recipes such as pumpkin pies. The other pumpkins usually have a tough pulp with a bland taste and are rarely consumed.

Acorn squashes are known for their small size, with a weight that rarely exceeds three pounds. The name comes from their shape, which is similar to an acorn. Most of the fruiting bodies are green but golden specimens also exist. They are commonly sold in stores and the flesh has a pleasant nutty and sweet taste.

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Another winter squash often found in grocery stores is the butternut squash. It has a distinctive bulbous shape similar to a pear, with a beige colored skin. The skin has a vivid orange color and a flavour that has been compared to sweet potatoes, with a nutty aftertaste. It is commonly added as an ingredient in soups.

Hubbard squashes have a big size and the skin color varies from grey to orange. It has a very durable skin, even stronger than other winter varieties, so the flesh is well protected. Despite the hard outer shell, the pulp contains a lot of water. However, it is not as sweet as some of other varieties.

Just like the name implies, the turban squash looks like a turban. The skin can be white, green or orange, often with stains or spots. The flesh has a very pleasant taste that resembles hazelnuts, as well as an intriguing deep orange color. It is suitable for use as a table decoration after removing the content, due to the attractive color and special shape.

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Winter squashes can be prepared in many ways. They are delicious when baked, pureed, micro waved, boiled or steamed. It is a good idea to prepare the squash with its skin and remove it afterwards; otherwise it is hard to peel off due to its hardness. When stored in a cool and dry location, winter squashes can be preserved for months. Freezing extends their preservation period even further. The seeds are also a popular snack, after roasting and adding various spices. Winter squashes can usually replace pumpkin in pie recipes, since the taste is very similar.

Like all members of the Cucurbitaceae family, winter squashes are related to cucumbers and melons. All of the varieties that exist have been developed from wild ancestors in temperate regions of South America, in today's Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Bolivia. While winter squashes have a number of common traits, the size, shape, taste and color is variable.

The winter squash has been cultivated in the Americas for a very long time. Seeds older than 10000 years have been found in Mexico by archaeologists. Despite their name, the fruits are not grown or harvested in the winter, but actually can be stored during the cold season. They are picked at full maturity, when the rind becomes inedible and hard, while the interior is hollow. It has a long shelf life due to the thickness of the shell. Winter squashes have various popular names such as Buttercup Squash, Giant Pumpkin, Hubbard Squash, Japanese Squash, Sweet-Fleshed Pumpkin, Autumn Squash and Banana Squash.

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The annual plant that produces winter squashes is a monoecious climbing vine that can reach a height of up to 3 feet. It enjoys conditions similar to the ones found in its native range, with highly fertile organic soils with good drainage and a hot climate. The tap root branches into a wide system that doesn't go very deep. The long stems are covered by soft hairs, with a rounded shape and a number of nodes. The simple leaves are found in alternate pairs, with long petioles between 5 and 20 cm. They have a soft and hairy surface sometimes covered in white spots, with 3 veins starting from the base and fine teeth on the edges. The large flowers have a diameter between 10 and 20 cm and grow solitary. They are unisexual and the color is yellow or orange.

A staple in the cuisine of temperate South America, the winter squash is both tasty and highly nutritious. While the fruits have common traits, their shape, size, color and taste varies a lot and many different species exist. The fruits are very large when compared to the size of the plant that hosts them, with a globular or ovoid appearance. Cultivars with all kinds of colors are known, the most common are yellow, white, green, orange or white. The fruits are attached to a cylindrical stalk that resembles a cork, which doesn't flare in the point of attachment and is quite soft. Rinds can be moderately hard or extremely tough, while the flesh has an appealing yellow or orange color.

The fruits are famous for their very large weight that can even reach 50 kg. They are well-suited for many recipes, due to the moderately soft taste with an intriguing flavour. The mature seeds have a flattened shape, with a length of up to 2.5 cm and a width of up to 1.5 cm. Their surface can be smooth or moderately rough, while the color varies from white to brown. It has been used in cooking since ancient times by many cultures, due to its pleasant taste and valuable nutritional content.

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Health benefits

Winter squashes are a very nutritious and tasty food that is prized for its flavour. All varieties provide a number of bioactive compounds and have important health benefits, especially pumpkins, acorn squashes and butternuts. They all supply a good amount of vitamin A, which boosts immunity and is important for a good vision. Squashes are rich in carotenoids that are precursors of the vitamin and have powerful anti-cancer and immune-modulating effects. For some carotenoids, winter squashes are the best food source on Earth. These nutrients give squashes and other fruits a distinctive bright yellow, red or orange color.

Studies have revealed that eating fresh fruits and vegetables reduces the risk of multiple types of cancer. One of the most effective plant nutrients is vitamin C, which strengthens the effects of chemotherapy treatments and has strong antioxidant properties of its own. This vitamin might even be the most cost effective natural treatment for cancer. A serving of winter squash provides 14% of the recommended daily amount, or 12.8 mg of vitamin C. Scientists have established that including winter squashes in your diet can reduce the risk of throat, colon, rectum, stomach, lungs or mouth cancers, probably due to the vitamin C in the fruit composition.

A deficiency of vitamin B6 can trigger a serious condition known as rheumatoid arthritis (RA). This disease causes chronic inflammation and joint pain, as well as permanent muscle aches. Individuals who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis need more vitamin B6 than healthy people in order to counter these effects. Winter squashes provide a good amount of this vitamin, significantly reducing the pain associated with this disease. They can be consumed as a natural food supplement.

Like most fruits, squashes provide a great amount of dietary fibers. These are great for digestion because they bulk up the stool and normalize its movement, allowing it to move normally through the tract. Conditions like diarrhea or constipation can be prevented with a good fiber intake. Fibers can also reduce the risk of more serious diseases like hemorrhoids, gallstones, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and inflammation of the intestine or kidney stones. They can also prevent the onset of gastric ulcers and the gastroesophageal reflux disorder, by reducing the amount of digestive acids.

Vitamin A plays a key role in immunity and directly influences the activity of the human immune system. Its main role is to control a number of genes that regulate the body's immune reaction. As a result, a good supply of this vitamin is invaluable in the fight against autoimmune diseases or cancer. The risk of normal conditions like colds or flu is also reduced.

Vitamin A is produced from beta-carotenes, which prevent many chronic diseases due to their powerful antioxidant effects. The immune boosting effects of the vitamin are especially strong for kids. Studies conducted in countries with low incomes and high child mortality rates have concluded that supplements with vitamin A reduced fatality risks by 24%. At the same time, kids with a vitamin A deficiency had a higher risk of infection with measles and digestive problems. For a healthy life, a proper amount of this vitamin is needed in your diet.

Pantothenic acid, also known as vitamin B5, is required for skin health and makes it glow and look attractive. It prevents the onset of age spots and wrinkles, delaying the inevitable effects of skin aging. Scientists have also discovered that vitamin B5 is critical for hair color and allows it to retain its natural nuance for a longer time, before it turns white due to age. A serving of winter squash provides 9.28% of the daily recommended value of vitamin B5, or a dose of 0.464 mg, so it is very important to include it in your diet.

Besides well-known minerals like copper, calcium or zinc, the rare element manganese plays a key role in preventing bone density loss. This is especially important for elder women, who have a very high risk of bone fractures. Manganese is needed for the production of enzymes and hormones that regulate bone metabolism and a lack of this mineral can lead to serious bone problems.

Manganese can be a good natural treatment for osteoporosis. In order to be effective, it must be combined with calcium, vitamin D, copper, zinc, magnesium, boron and other nutrients known to improve human bone mass density. Foods that provide manganese are uncommon and the winter squash is one of the best sources for this mineral. A single serving supplies 0.208 mg of manganese, or 9.04% of the daily requirement.

Copper is a mineral with important health benefits that allows wounds to heal faster due to its strong antiseptic and anti-inflammatory effects. It is needed for the production of new cells and can make the human immune system more effective. An interesting feature of copper is that it improves healing of both external and internal wounds. Stomach ulcers for example will heal faster with a proper supply of copper. Winter squashes can significantly speed up healing due to their copper content.

Potassium is known to reduce the risk of heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular problems. A diet that includes winter squashes will provide an adequate amount of this mineral. Potassium is particularly important for people who already have a history of heart diseases.

Like most potassium-rich foods, winter squashes are also a great source of other essential minerals and bioactive compounds with antioxidant effects. They can provide an important overall health boost. In order to properly benefit from these nutrients, you also have to exercise daily, either through a sport or other activities like yoga.

The acorn squash is especially rich in magnesium but all winter squash varieties include this mineral. It plays a key role in controlling blood pressure, as well as the balance of melatonin and cortisol. Magnesium reduces the risk of strokes and heart diseases, but also relieves stress or anxiety and promotes peaceful sleep. Scientists have also established that magnesium prevents the formation of gallstones. A single cup of winter squash provides 28% of the daily recommended amount of magnesium.

The development of Alzheimer's disease can be slowed down with a good supply of vitamin B1. Daily supplements of 100 mg of vitamin B1 were found to be very beneficial for patients with this condition. Since the winter squash is very rich in this vitamin, including it in the regular diet is a great idea for people who suffer from Alzheimer's disease.

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