Photo by Rick Gush
Squash flowers have already started appearing in vegetable markets here in Italy, which means it’s just about squash flower season in our garden. A few of the squash flower suppliers are northern growers who grow very early squash in greenhouses, but most are growers from the south of Italy, who ship up north.
Most of the squash flower recipes on the net refer to the male flowers. However, we eat both male and female flowers. We sometimes harvest small squashes that still have a fully opened flower attached by cleaning out the inside and steaming the flowers along with the squash. The male flowers are larger than the females, and there are more of them. Male squash flowers don’t have the little squash fruit swelling underneath the flower.
We have enough different squashes growing, from summer varieties to winter squash. If we can harvest a dozen or more blooms at a time, several times a week, we can usually enjoy them for a few months. I’ve observed that vine-type squashes grow more flowers than zucchini plants — possibly because growing the vines on overhead trellises makes harvesting perfect flowers fairly easy. Luckily, we don’t get many squash borers here, but I did in the States. Fighting the borers (I was a compulsive hiller) was always the biggest part of the maintenance work.
From bees to ants and earwigs, everybody seems to like hanging out inside the big orange blooms. I highly recommend a brief post-harvest rest period and final inspection before bringing squash flowers from the garden into the house, especially if you’re not keen on bugs in your kitchen.
The flowers are at their freshest first thing in the morning, which is when they open. However, there’s really no reason you can’t harvest the flowers in the afternoon if they’re on the menu for dinner.
You’ll find that a lot of recipes call for filling the squash flowers with cheese and then frying them. Sometimes they are also battered before frying. You can also use the male flowers as pizza toppings and also in soups. In all cases, the big, sturdy flowers are surprisingly present, and don’t just fade into the background.
Here in Italy, we don’t have squash bees like in the Americas, but we do have a lot of solitary bees that love squash blossoms. It’s not unusual to see three or four mixed honeybees and solitary bees all together inside a big squash flower. Although bees are the preferred pollinator, hand-pollination can be fun for the home gardener wanting to fool around a bit with plant breeding. The resultant fruits are usually the same, but the seeds from cross-pollinated squashes will be a mixture of the two parents.
Hand-pollinating squash flowers couldn’t be easier, and it’s a good activity to teach kids.