Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sex in the Garden

Please calm down! I'm talking about plants here, specifically squashes and their near relatives: pumpkins, gourds, melons, etc. Up until a few years ago our garden produced bumper crops of all these crops, but as the bee population declines, so do the fruits of these plants. We should all be worried about the lack of bees; without these vital pollinators, our food supply is in serious danger.

As you probably already know, plants in the squash family produce two kinds of flowers - male and female - and the pollen has to get transferred from the male flower to the female flower in order to produce a fruit. We used to be able to rely on the bees for that, but no longer. Therefore, many gardeners have taken on the task of pollination to make sure of getting a crop at all.

It's easy to tell the flowers apart. Female flowers will have a little fruit at their base - a tiny zucchini or yellow summer squash or pumpkin, etc., and a more complex structure in the heart of the blossom - the pistil(s). Male flowers have a longer, slender stem, with a single pollen-covered stamen inside the flower and no sign of a baby squash at the base. Here's a bunch of male zucchini, yellow summer squash, and pumpkin blossoms - yes, they all look alike. The stamen in the middle of the blossom is easy to see.
The last couple of years I've been trying to hand-pollinate by following a method I saw on TV, picking the male flower, stripping off the golden petals, and using the pollen-covered stamen directly to apply the pollen to the female flower's pistil. It hasn't worked very well and I think I may have been overly enthusiastic and forceful. Some garden authorities recommend using a soft-bristled paintbrush to transfer the pollen from one to the other, and this year I'm trying that. Perhaps the female flowers will appreciate the gentler touch.
Before I could try the new approach, though, I found some female blossoms I'd missed, with their attached baby squashes, so I harvested them to make a little  breakfast frittata. I took off the blossoms and sliced the squashes; you can see slices from the siamese twin squash on the left, above, at the front in the picture below:
Then I pulled the petals off the blossoms in the bouquet in the first photo, discarded the stems and stamens,  stacked up what was left, sliced them crosswise into narrow strips, and separated them into a pile of loose "ribbons":
I lightly sautéed the squash slices in my little 8" cast iron skillet (I was only serving 2) over medium heat in a little olive oil, adding in 1 chopped tomato after a couple of minutes. While the vegetables were cooking, I beat 3 eggs and then stirred in 2 thinly sliced green onions and the squash blossom strips, along with a little salt and pepper, poured the mixture over the squash and tomato in the pan, and reduced the heat to medium low.
 I sprinkled it all with an ounce or so of grated cheese, in this case one of those little individual BabyBel cheese balls wrapped in red wax, though whatever's handy is usually just fine (that's what was handy), and some chopped cilantro (parsley or basil would be fine, too), put the lid on, and left it alone for a few minutes till it was cooked through and puffed up a bit. I used that time to make toast and mix up a fruit cup of sliced banana, orange sections, and a few strawberries that had somehow gotten left behind from dessert the night before.
It was a perfect breakfast for two. Though the squash blossoms didn't add much flavor, they looked very pretty, and given the color they must have contributed some beta-carotene and perhaps some fiber. I've made stuffed squash blossoms in the past, which are delicious but also labor-intensive (they do impress guests), but this was simpler and just fine. I'll include the blossoms in omelets and frittatas when I have them, and I think they would also be a nice addition to a salad or tossed into a light, brothy soup at the last minute.

I was out in the garden earlier this morning, making sure all the female blossoms got the necessary attention, and it seems the kinder, gentler approach with the soft paintbrush is working. We'll be harvesting some zucchini tomorrow, and the one pumpkin I pollinated a couple of days ago is plump and healthy and has grown to the size of a tennis ball. So I'm feeling hopeful for a better harvest this year, and if it truly is abundant, I may post some more recipes for using up all those zucchini!