Step up to the Plate: Our Mystery Squash

Philip Kauth, assistant curator, and Steffen Mirsky, horticultural technician, make up the Seed Savers Exchange Evaluation Team.  The Eval Team is the division of the Preservation Department that keeps detailed records of more characteristics than most people know an individual variety can have. Their work helps us differentiate between the varieties in our collection and describe them clearly in the Yearbook. 

This is the first in their new blog series, Step up to the Plate, a monthly profile of a variety that stands out to the evaluation professionals. This month, they give a special shout-out to Sara Straate, our in-house seed historian, who did much research on 'Sibley' for this post. 

February 2015: Squash 2157 'Sibley'

Winner-Winner, 'Sibley' Dinner

Each year at the end of the growing season, the evaluation team holds a blind winter squash tasting event for the entire Seed Savers Exchange staff. This past year, we offered a total of 17 varieties, including pumpkins, cushaws, buttercups, and hubbards. After we tallied the results, ‘Sibley’ squash’s overall score was the highest.  In the individual categories, ‘Sibley’ took the gold for sweetness and texture and came in a very close second for flavor.

The Evaluation Team scans images of each variety at its different stages of development as a part of the evaluation process. 

Carleton Currier donated ‘Sibley’ to SSE in 1985 and mentioned that “it had been in family gardens since [his] grandparents moved here in 1892.” Hiram Sibley & Co. Seed Company of Rochester, NY, originally introduced this variety in 1888. Many American seed companies in the decades that followed offered it as either 'Sibley' or the alternative name 'Pike's Peak'.  ‘Sibley’ has been offered in the SSE Yearbook Exchange consistently from 1985 to 2015. The variety can also be found in the SSE Catalog.

A Squash Shrouded in Mystery

The history of ‘Sibley’ is not as cut and dry as it may seem.  Winston Churchill might even call this variety “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” ‘Sibley’ was mentioned in the 1937 Vegetables of New York series which included the following: "The Sibley or Pike's Peak squash had a local reputation for many years but until 1887, when it was sent out by Hiram Sibley & Co., Rochester, New York, it was unknown in the trade.  According C.L. Allen [a well-known New York horticulturist], Sibley was found in the hands of an elderly lady in Van Dinam, Iowa, who had grown it for 50 or more years in Missouri.” 

And therein lies the mystery. SSE staff conducted an extensive search of historical records to try to locate Van Dinam, IA, but to no avail. The town appears never to have existed. However, Hiram Sibley’s 1888 seed catalog reports that several farmers residing near Lewis, IA, including a truck gardener named F.B. Van Orman, successfully grew the squash. One plausible theory from Sara Straate, SSE’s very own seed historian, is that Van Orman was transcribed incorrectly to Van Dinam. To complicate matters, several well-known authors and seed companies have perpetuated the story of ‘Sibley’ over the years. Until we crack the mystery of its origins, Van Diman, IA, will remain our Shangri-La, our Atlantis, our El Dorado.

Photographic documentation of 'Sibley' squash 2157

‘Sibley’ squash’s 2015 Yearbook description: C. maxima. Banana type. A staff favorite for taste in 2014. Sweet flavor that can stand alone; dry texture; smooth and dense.  Acorn-shaped to elongate fruit is gray blue-green with smooth, slightly ribbed skin. Slight blue-green striping throughout fruit.  Somewhat uniform in shape and size, very uniform in color. Market mature fruit 11-18" long, 5.5-7" wide, and 5-9 lbs. Flesh is medium orange to dark orange and around 1" thick.  Vine; leaves 20-25 cm wide, entire, no silvering.  Mid- to late-season maturity when grown in 2014 at Heritage Farm.