Decorative gourds are a staple of autumnal farmers' markets across the United States. The multi-colored squash are a popular fall decoration, and it’s common for people to seek out the strangest, bumpiest, most alien-looking gourds they can find. But few of us stop to think about how they got so, well, weird looking.
It turns out, a lot of work goes into breeding weirder and weirder types of squash. According to NPR, over the last thirty years, the amount of land devoted to growing squash has tripled, and farmers compete each year to come up with exciting new varieties.
Adam Pyle, a horticulturalist at the United States Botanic Garden, told NPR, "You have a huge demand for squash and gourds that are aesthetically interesting and different from each other. That's been popular for a while, and it's been really trendy the last few years."
But the gourds don’t just look weird—they have pretty crazy names, too. Virginia farmer Charles Martin sells one bumpy pumpkin called the “Warty Goblin,” and another white-and-red striped squash called the “One Two Many,” which he explains is “supposed to resemble a bloodshot eye.”
Other gourds have less grotesque titles: Michigan gourd breeder Larry Eckler’s colorful flower-shaped squash, for instance, is called the “Daisy Gourd.”
But while decorative gourds might be an aesthetic trend, there’s a scientific reason that their appearance is so varied. Squash was actually one of the first plants to be domesticated by humans around 8000 years ago. The plants are incredibly diverse genetically, and they tend to display these differences externally.
That means breeding squash requires a lot of creativity, and farmers spend years working on new and exciting shapes and colors. As Charles Martin explained to NPR, “You want each item to have its own character. As a farmer, it's glorious fun."