We try to keep the door closed between our home greenhouse and our utility room, to exclude rodents, but the other day a squash plant wandered in. Or leapt in, gaining (or so it appeared) a foot of floor space in a day.
Zuchetta rampicante is not just any squash. Like so many New World crops, squashes have made themselves at home in many parts of the Old, in this case the Ligurian region of Italy, especially the town of Albenga. In fact, one of the plant’s common names is tromba d’Albenga. Others include tromboncino, trombolina and trumpet squash, all of which refer to its fruits’ trumpetlike coiled shape.
Rampicante simply means “climbing” in Italian, but an assumption of “rampant” in this case is more than justified. My Louisianan grandfather used to claim he could hear kudzu growing when he sat on his porch. This summer I swear I can hear Zuchetta rampicante scaling my tall garden fence, wandering through shrub borders and lassoing the eggplants.
According to “Cornucopia: A Source Book of Edible Plants,” it can grow 30 to 40 feet in one season. Surprisingly, it’s a cultivar of Cucurbita moschata, the species that includes most winter squash, as opposed to C. pepo, which comprises most summer ones. And you can mature it to store as a winter squash (a bit like the butternut type). But it is most prized as a summer treat.
I had grown this plant some years ago and wanted to see whether it tasted as good as I’d remembered. If you want to grow it next summer, it is available at several seed companies, including John Scheepers, Fedco, Baker Creek, Sow True Seed, Territorial Seeds, Bountiful Gardens and Seeds From Italy.
True to its nickname, the plant rewarded me with hilarious loopy fruits. They will dangle more vertically when trellised, but I love the twisted coils they make when grown along the ground, hiding under the huge leaves like coiled serpents.
It’s fun to roast those whole on a rimmed baking sheet, tossed with olive oil, garlic and your favorite herbs. Gloriously good. I also tried a taste-test along with regular zucchini, steaming each separately and tasting each without butter or seasoning. The zucchini was sweeter, but the Zuchetta rampicante was still full-flavored, with a much more versatile texture. When cooked, it’s tender but a bit more firm than a zucchini, and does not get mushy or watery. I’ll bet it would make a great zucchini bread. I started out cooking just the young fruits, but I found that even three-foot wonders were tasty. Nearly seedless, too.
Don’t be scared off by this force of nature. It will win you over with its resistance to squash vine borer, its heat tolerance and its outrageous vigor. Train it on a very stout trellis, or allow it to wander along the ground in a spot where you’d just as soon not weed. Didn’t Sister Squash play that weed-smothering role in the Indian “three sisters” trio of squash, corn and beans? There are currently no weeds in our greenhouse, where squash vines now cover the soil. We head them back down when they try to climb the trellised tomato vines with which they share the space. And remember to shut the door.
Tip of the week
In this season of lawn renovation, a dethatching rake can be used to cultivate soil and also cut back stands of lawn weeds such as clover, wild strawberry and crabgrass. The rake won’t help with nutsedge and violets, which should be dug out. Grass seed needs good soil contact to germinate, as well as daily watering. — Adrian Higgins
Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”