Friday, July 24, 2009

Single yellow female seeks partner

According to the census bureau, Alaska has 114 single men for every 100 unmarried women, the highest ratio of men to women among all states. That makes the odds good for a single woman in Alaska, but a female squash blossom has an even better chance of finding a partner. Yesterday was typical, with 20 male flower blossoms on my squash plants, and only one female. The first flowers to appear on my plants were all male, and it was weeks before the first female appeared. Those early male flowers shriveled and died without their reproductive imperative fulfilled.

As a vegetable gardener, I have mixed feelings about all those male flowers. While their bright yellow blossoms are attractive, they are merely ornamental -- only female flowers can produce a squash -- and our goal is the harvest. It is easy to tell the difference between the male and female flowers -- they have different centers clearly visible when the flowers are open (the female is on the left), and the females have a tiny squash starting on the stem just under the flower. If the female flower isn't fertilized, this squash never develops and the flower drops off. I saw this happen several times on my Benning's Green Tint plants, and I felt like a huge opportunity had been missed.

I may sound a bit obsessed by my battle against the Squash Vine Borer, but I know that eventually I will be miss an egg, and a voracious caterpillar will soon after send my plant to the compost heap. So when I am lucky enough to have a female flower, I no longer leave anything to chance. I cut off a male flower, remove the petals, and hand-pollinate the female. There are always plenty of male flowers available, making it easy to sacrifice one. And this form of artificial insemination should guaranty a baby squash in the future. I hand-pollinate in the morning when the flowers are open and loaded with pollen.

There are never many female flowers to pollinate, so there are always many extra male flowers. I've always left them on the plant to close and wither after a day or two. Yesterday, I decided to remove them for David to use in the kitchen. In restaurants, squash blossoms are quite a delicacy. This is due in large part to the ephemeral nature of these blossoms. They're good for about a day once cut from the plant, making for tough logistics in the restaurant business. Of course, we just have to transport ours from the yard to the kitchen, but we still had to cook them quickly.

David used a Mario Batali recipe for fried squash blossoms. Batali's instructions are useful: step one, check for insects. This was not a bad idea since I always spy ants crawling all over the centers of the blossoms. And when I was carrying the blossoms, a bee kept flying into the centers trying to harvest the pollen before I disappeared into the house. None of the ants seemed to have survived the day in our refrigerator and the bee stayed outside, so David was able to quickly stuff the blossoms with a ricotta filling and fry them in oil. The blossoms were dressed with a yellow tomato oil made with our yellow pear tomatoes, and the combination was sublime.

The food disappeared quickly, leaving me wanting more. This morning I was not surprised to find 18 new male flowers on our Benning's Green Tint plants. Unfortunately, there were no females to be found, so I removed every flower and quickly stashed them in the refrigerator. I can't wait for another helping of fried squash blossoms for dinner; those abundant male flowers won't be wasted any longer. Squash blossoms makes the wait for an actual squash harvest almost tolerable.

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