Mandan Squash: Heritage Variety Suited to Short Summers

Andrew McMillion
Monday, 25th February 2019

With the climate crisis impacting our growing seasons, Andrew McMillion is pleased to find the Mandan Squash, a heritage Native American variety that grows well in short summers.

Searching for hardy plants that can adapt to the rapidly changing Norther climates is a challenging but rewarding hunt. The Norwegian Seed Savers have been on this hunt for a decade, lead in large part by the efforts of Stephen Barstow, known as the “Extreme Salad Man” who holds the world record for the salad with the most varieties. Stephen's book Around the World in 80 Plants, profiles the best of the over 3000 varieties of vegetables he has grown since the 1980s in his permaculture garden just a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle.

The Norwegian Seed Savers steward everything from fruit and nut trees, to heirlooms and landraces and a cornucopia of perennials and semi-wild plants.

We divide the stewardship into guilds based on families of plants so that we can specialize in the knowledge of each grouping, forming a web of protection of the biodiversity that is our shared heritage. Of the 20 odd guilds the Cucurbitaceae Guild provides a bit of a challenge as there are no native Nordic varieties. The search therefore has taken me to many websites in the States and Canada where I finally found what I believe to be the most Northern variety; the Mandan Squash.

In 2017 I managed to get some Mandan Squash seeds from an A´Bunadh Seeds in Canada (‘the origin’ in Gaelic). They got their Mandan seeds from Heritage Harvest Seed who originally got their seed from the Science Museum of Minnesota.

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I contacted the Interpretive Gardener for the Ethnobotany Program at the Science Museum of Minnesota, who confirmed that the Museum did indeed receive seeds for this particular squash from Dr. Wesley Hiller, who grew this squash in his garden from seeds he received from the Oscar H Will Seed Company (see picture). Mr. Will acquired seeds from a Mandan woman named Scattered Corn, daughter of Moves Slowly, the last Mandan Corn Priestess (below). Thus, there is only six degree of separation between the Mandan Corn Priestess and the seeds saved on my farm.

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The Mandan Squash is perfect for the short growing season in the Nordics. It is prolific, early and has a thicker flesh than most pepo varieties with a consistency more like a potato. It’s especially useful in that it has a thicker skin than most summer squash permitting it to be stored at room temperature for many months. Thus, squash gluts are not a problem, as they are simply stored in windows, and tables, making beautiful colorful decorations in the home till they are eaten.

In Carol Deppe's Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties she mentions a book called Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden about the agricultural traditions of the Hidatsa and Mandan tribes. These two tribes joined forces in the 1850s after smallpox and wars reduced the Mandan population to about 100. Estimates of the pre-European population was about 10-15,000 in as many as 1000 lodges along the Heart River of the Missouri watershed.

The book Coyote Warrior describes how the Mandan migrated North along the Mississippi about 1000 A.D. to the Upper Missouri, where they developed their own varieties of corn from seeds acquired by the Aztecs which they selected to ripen in just 70 days. Corn, squash, beans and potato were the foundation of their agricultural tradition which they had spent centuries perfecting before the white man arrived. Coyote Warrior goes on to depict the epic struggle between the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nations against the construction of a dam near the upper Missouri River that forcibly removed hundreds of families from their ancestral lands.

The books title comes from “Coyote: a mythical, spiritual, or human being living on the geographic and social fringe of a community, whose role within that community is to use humor, shock, cunning, and surprise to assist individuals in “waking up,” and to prevent the community from developing self-destructive modes of behavior” and  “warrior: a protector of the people, a high distinction earned through fidelity to truth, common sense, physical and mental prowess, and personal integrity”.

In a world that is rapidly being destroyed by the endless appetite for energy, which would build a dam on the sacred site of three nations already decimated and on the brink of extinction, one cannot help but feel the preciousness of the seeds that the Mandan have saved generation after generation, passing on the knowledge and the connection to those who are willing to steward them. 

Connecting to land-races like the Mandan squash has become much more than finding plants that can adapt to a changing climate. Its about linking to the endless web of life from which we come, and to which we have a responsibility to maintain, improve and pass on.

Useful links

Drying squash from The Resilient Gardener by Carole Deppe

Heavenly food - autumn in the permaculture garden

Growing pumpkin and squash vertically

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