Tonight’s Halloween pumpkin has a long and fascinating history, one well worth looking into.
First, the pumpkin is a type of winter squash, in the genus Cucurbita. There are two species usually called pumpkin in Britain and North America: C. pepo (the jack o’lantern type pumpkin) and C. maxima (the giant pumpkin). In Australia and New Zealand, pretty much any winter squash will go under the name pumpkin.
Pumpkins originated in North America. They are believed to have been domesticated in Mexico about 5500 B.C. Originally, the fruit was small with a hard shell and was grown for its edible seeds. Over time, varieties with thicker, less fibrous flesh were developed and used for human consumption.
It is believed that the first European to introduce the pumpkin to the Old World was Spanish explorer Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca. He saw pumpkins in Florida in 1528 and is thought to have brought the first seeds back to Europe. It took a while for the new fruit to become widely accepted, but nowadays pumpkins are grown on every continent except Antarctica.
Quite the Plant!
A pumpkin plant is huge, with large leaves and long, trailing stems, sometimes 10 feet (3 m) long. However, the size of the plant does not determine that of the fruit. Rather, it is genetically determined, with some varieties producing only one or two very large pumpkins, while others produce smaller fruit, but more per plant.
Giant pumpkins (C. maxima) were originally developed by Nova Scotian farmer Howard Dill (1935-2008). He simply kept saving the seed of the largest pumpkins in his pumpkin patch every year and soon began to win prizes for the largest pumpkin in local fairs. He later commercialized his pumpkin strain under the name Dill’s Atlantic Giant.
In 1980, he created quite a stir by presenting a pumpkin weighing 459 lbs (208 kg) at a fair. He later commercialized his pumpkin strain under the name Dill’s Atlantic Giant… and you can still buy seed of Atlantic Giant pumpkins to this today. However, Mr. Dill’s pumpkin is a baby compared to the world-record pumpkin, grown in 2014 by German gardener Beni Meir. It weighed a whopping 2,323.7 lb (a bit over a metric ton). That’s as much as a teenage hippopotamus.
Note that the giant pumpkins don’t look much like Halloween pumpkins. They’re not of the same species (C. maxima rather than C. pepo), are often lumpy rather than smooth and tend to come in shades of pale orange, yellow or cream rather than the deep orange associated with the typical jack o’lantern. Also, they are usually quite deformed, collapsing a bit under their enormous weight and giving a fruit that is distinctly flattened.
Vegetable or Fruit?
Is the pumpkin a fruit or a vegetable? It all depends on your perspective. If you serve it with the main meal, as in a soup, most people would consider it a vegetable. If you serve it as a dessert, such as in pumpkin pie, most would consider it a fruit. Botanically speaking, though, it contains seeds and is therefore a fruit.
Carving pumpkins into jack o’lanterns is relatively recent. It is believed that tradition was brought over from Ireland where people used to carve turnips and rutabagas into lanterns for Halloween, the eve of All Saint’s Day. It is believed that Irish immigrants quickly switched to pumpkins in North America simply because they are easier to carve!
As you carve tonight’s pumpkin, remember to keep some seeds for next year. Sow them outdoors next spring and they’ll give you big, beautiful free pumpkins in time for Halloween next year.