Well, that happened to me last night, as I was explaining to a friend that while she probably could save the seeds of that delicious winter squash she got from the co-op, she isn’t guaranteed to get the same squash from growing those seeds out.
If there was another squash (Cucurbita) of the same species in the field, it would likely have cross-pollinated with that delicious squash she ate, and there’s no telling what would come from the seed. You see–all squashes (and melons and cukes) are insect-pollinated, so crosses between plants of the same species are almost guaranteed.
It’s like that time I saved seed from spaghetti squash that was grown adjacent to several varieties of summer squash–they’re both Cucurbita pepo, and the seeds produced some very interesting (and quite lovely) offspring of the two–though that wasn’t what I wanted when I put those seeds in the ground.
The head-smacker moment came when I suddenly realized that if the varieties of squash that were grown together were of different species (say, a C. maxima–buttercup or hubbard, a C. moschata–butternut or cheese, and a C. pepo–spaghetti or acorn) then I could have a better variety of winter squash and still be able to save the seeds.
In fact, this also makes me realize that I can save seeds from the Neck Pumpkins I grew this past year (C. moschata) because there weren’t any other squashes in that patch that were moschatas–the rest were pepos–and then there were some watermelons–same family, but different genus and species–Citrullus lanatus and some muskmelons–Cucumis melo.
Before you accuse me of completely geeking out here (and yes, I am–but to good purpose), let me explain that this kind of species-specific planning is exactly what a grower who wants to save seeds of crops that readily cross-pollinate needs to do.
For instance–you can grow most melons and cukes (Cucumis) together and save the seeds with confidence–but not melons and Armenian cukes (the “serpent” cukes) because those are actually melon (melo) species, while “regular” cukes are species sativus. And don’t get me started on West Indian Gherkins or African Horned Melons.
Of course, all these great elucidations were caused simply by going back to the bible of seed-saving: Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed. Not only do I always find the information I’m looking for in there, I almost always find out something else I needed to know but didn’t know I needed to know it.
I guess I’m not enough of a geek to actually sit down and just read through the whole thing cover to cover, but delving into it family-by-plant-family is almost invariably a lightbulb-of-awareness-inducing moment. Even if the lightbulb was already floating there above my head and just wasn’t lit.