Professor Shifriss Golden Acorn Squash
Origin: New Brunswick, New Jersey
Improvement status: Breeding material
Seeds per packet: ~18
Germination tested 12/2019: 93%
Life cycle: Annual
Dr. Oved Shifriss was a legendary plant breeder. Born in 1915 in then-Ottoman Palestine to parents who had fled rising anti-Semitism in Odessa (then part of the Russian Empire), Shifriss was raised in the moshav (a partially-collectivist agricultural community) of Ein Gadim, one of the first Jewish agricultural settlements in Palestine. Shifriss attended Hebrew University, and in his early 20s emigrated to the US. He completed undergraduate work in agriculture at UC-Berkeley, then completed his doctorate at Cornell. From 1942 to 1950 he was director of vegetable research at the famous W. Atlee Burpee Company, based in Warminster, PA, where Dr. Shifriss revolutionized the vegetable seed industry by developing the first mass-market hybrid vegetables. The 1949 release of his famous creation, the still-popular 'Big Boy' hybrid tomato, made his name. When he died in 2004, his obituary was published in the New York Times.
In 1982, more than two decades before his death, the Times published a story about Dr. Shifriss and his development of the 'Jersey Golden Acorn' squash, which was an All-America Selections winner in that year. The variety had been developed during his decades as a plant breeder and professor at Rutgers University, the state university of NJ. Seeds were sold by Burpee and other companies. Though Dr. Shifriss considered it unfinished (occasional bitter fruits were still cropping up, and the leaves often yellowed early in the season), it was touted as a major advance in plant breeding. With 40% more protein and two to three times the beta carotene than green acorn squash, the Jersey Golden Acorn was to be a steppingstone on the road to Dr. Shifriss' main goal: a dual-crop summer & winter squash that tastes "as good as sweet corn" and has enough nutrition to serve as a staple crop.
Shifriss never achieved his goal — in his later years he complained bitterly about not getting enough funding from the university — but he left quite a bit for future plant breeders to work with. He was fascinated by the sex expression in castor bean plants, and also spent years researching the bi-color nature of certain gourds. Neither pursuit was apparently appreciated by his funders. But the "b-gene" he identified in gourds ended up leading directly to the development of the Jersey Golden Acorn, which included some bi-color gourd in its heritage. Though a sceptic of genetic engineering (what we call "genetic modification"), Dr. Shifriss was nevertheless a pioneer in using old-fashioned plant breeding to create wild new food crops.
We got seeds from the USDA that were supposed to be 'Jersey Golden Acorn,' but on growing them out we found a more diverse population than expected — meaning either that they were inadvertently crossed with another variety in a previous growout, or perhaps that they were grown out repeatedly without necessary continued selection (some varieties, especially under-stabilized ones, require serious selection every year). In any case, what we found seems like an old landrace: some plants produce fruit just like the original description (yellow and tasty when young, rich orange when fully ripe), while others have fruit that's more elongated, and others have some green coloration at their blossom-end. It seems the "b-gene" Dr. Shifriss was so excited about is still expressing itself. We didn't find any bitter fruit, but those genes may be there as well. The young fruit, used as a summer squash, are indeed tender and flavorful, indeed reminscent of sweet corn. And the ripe squash is the color of an orange pumpkin, but with great flavor and long-keeping abilities. For growers who don't mind non-uniform crops and especially for breeders interested in continuing Dr. Shifriss' work develping delicious and highly nutritious squash, this is a fun one to try.
Drought resistant, mostly bush-type plants.
GROWING TIPS: Direct seed in May or early June, or transplant in healthy plant starts around this time. Plants should end up 2-3 feet apart in rows 5-6 feet apart. They want to sprawl.