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Kingdom: Plantae
Divsion: Angiospermae (flowering plants)
Order: Cucurbitales
Family: Cucurbitaceae
Species: Cucurbita pepo
Variety: Gem squash, commonly grown in South Africa, relatively rare elsewhere

Summary: A small, round, green, tasty squash.

Gem squash are a variety of squash, or gourd. The cucurbita family covers squash, gourds, pumpkins, marrows, courgettes and melons. Cucurbita pepo is the species that covers domesticated varieties of pumpkin, squash, marrow and courgette.

Squash are native to the Americas, estimated to have been domesticated in Northern Mexico, circa 8000 BC. Returning Spanish explorers brought them to Europe in the 1500s.

Gems are dark green and spherical, without the ribbed exterior that some pumpkins have. Their development on the vine is generally divided into two stages – they are either harvested young or old.

When young, golf-ball sized or larger, the skin is lighter. In colour, taste and texture they resemble zucchini – light green skin and pale, moist tender flesh. They are cooked by boiling or steaming (like zucchini, it doesn't take long, 15-20 minutes), and eaten whole – skin, pulp and seeds. I prefer them this way - Nothing except a little butter needs to be added to the delicate taste.

When older, sized like a tennis ball, the skin is darker green (sometimes with yellow or orange sections), thicker, harder and woodier, and inside the flesh has separated from the seeds. Cook by boiling or steaming, then cut in half and scoop out the seeds. Eat the flesh but not the seeds or skin.

Add a little butter in place of the seeds, and seasoning such as nutmeg. Or stuff with whatever and bake them. The flesh is more orange, with a richer, nuttier flavour, but dryer and stringy.

You may know the distinction between a "winter squash" and a "summer squash". Winter squash are left on the vine until mature, then harvested (generally in autumn) and kept for later in winter. But summer squash are picked when still young and tender, and eaten soon thereafter since they won't keep into winter. Gem squash are summer squash, but a borderline case - if picked mature, they can also be kept for a while.

Gem squash were never my favourite, paling in popularity before the large delicious butternut squash, so it was only after I had been in England for several years that I realised that the last time I had actually seem one in the supermarket's produce section was in South Africa. Questioning revealed that nobody around the office had heard of them, nor are they to be found on Borough market. This is surprising given the variety of produce on offer here. Now I'm starting to miss them. Apparently Waitrose sometimes have them, but they look like mature ones.

Growing gem squash: Gem squash are relatively easy to grow from seed. Plant them in spring, summer or early autumn. They will grow in full or partial sun. They do not tolerate frost.

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