Local to present day North Carolina, in the southeastern United States, the Candy Roaster squash is known for its sweet, unique flavor, which is the reasoning behind its name. The Cherokee tribes in the southern Appalachians originally cherished this squash for its ability to withstand winter frost and its long shelf life; many more people have come to treasure it for its unique taste. When fully ripe and stored for several months, it will reach its full flavor potential. A favorite in pies, soups, butters and breads, recipes that utilize this squash do not call for any additional sugar or sweetener. When baked, stewed, boiled or mashed, its pulp can be compared to a sweet potato
Native to the areas surrounding the Cherokee tribes in the states of present-day western North Carolina, northern Georgia, and eastern Tennessee, this food is of cultural significance to the region. There it is considered to be the best winter squash to eat, and people still plant it in the Cherokee tradition using the “Three Sisters” farming strategy. According to this traditional companion planting technique, the Candy Roaster grows around the base of the corn and pole beans (two other regionally native plants) to keep weeds from growing and to retain moisture in the soil surrounding them. The Candy Roaster squash can be round, oblong, or pear shaped and can often look somewhat like a pumpkin. It can be harvested at a weight ranging from 5 to 115 kilograms. It generally has a pink, tan or orange color, but some varieties can include green, gray or blue accents as well. Despite its wide-ranging appearance, most have a fine-textured orange-colored flesh and grow on large vines with large leaves.
The Cherokees in the southern Appalachian Mountains originally bred the Candy Roaster squash in the 1800’s. The first documentation of it being introduced to those beyond the Cherokee Nation was a newspaper article from the Charlotte Observer in 1925. This article tells of the “Indian Fair at Cherokee School” where Candy Roaster squash seeds were made available to people who applied for them through the Chamber of Commerce. This cultivar is of immense cultural importance to the Cherokee people, evidenced by the Cherokee Nation’s protection of Candy Roaster squash seeds through a seed bank from its Natural Resources Department, and to others who have come to value it over the last century.
Today, the availability of seeds for this heirloom squash is a concern. This is compounded by the fact that this squash is a variety of the squash species Cucurbita maxima, which is open-pollinated. The Candy Roaster squash can accidentally cross-pollinate with any other variety of Cucurbita maxima at distances up to 1.6 kilometers. Due to this risk, dedicated and skilled seedsmen are needed in order to protect its biodiversity and distinct genetic makeup.