Every year, the National Garden Bureau, a non-profit organization promoting the pleasures of home gardening, selects one annual, one bulb, one edible plant and one perennial to celebrate. It’s a great way to discover a new plant or to learn a bit more about a plant you may already be growing.
Let’s look at the edible plant chosen for 2019, the pumpkin.
For many, pumpkins are associated with autumn, sweet desserts, and Halloween.
Pumpkins are believed to have been domesticated in Mexico about 5500 B.C. Originally, the fruit was small with a hard shell and was grown mostly for its edible seeds. Native Americans would also either roast and consume strips of pumpkin flesh, or dry the skins and weave them into mats. 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 Álvar Núñez 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.
Many Americans associate the pumpkin with the Pilgrims. Indeed, it was one of the crops they adopted from the native Americans after they landed in New England in 1620. They soon learned to cook pumpkins, creating a dish believed to be a precursor of modern pumpkin pie. They cut the top off the pumpkin, removed the seeds, and filled the inside with milk, spices, and honey before baking it over hot ashes. This was the pumpkin pie served at the first Thanksgiving.
The word pumpkin has a complex history. It originates from the Greek word pepon for large melon or something round and large. This became pompon in France, then pumpion in England. American colonists changed that to pumpkin and that name has stuck.
The popular tradition of pumpkin carving was derived from an Irish custom of carving jack-o’-lanterns out of turnips and potatoes, and placing an ember inside to ward off evil spirits. When Irish immigrants arrived in America in the 1800s, they brought this custom with them and applied it to pumpkins.
Today, pumpkins are a staple for fall decorations and recipes. Eating pumpkin provides numerous health benefits: they are high in fiber, potassium, iron, and vitamins A, B and C while being low in calories, fat, and sodium. Pumpkin is excellent in baked goods, soups, casseroles, pasta, and sauces. Cook with pumpkin throughout the year to support heart health and healthy blood pressure.
What is a Pumpkin?
The pumpkin is a variety of winter squash (Cucurbita), thus a member of the Cucurbitaceae family which includes several other popular vegetables, including cucumbers, melons and watermelons.
Most varieties that we classify as pumpkins belong to the species Cucurbita pepo, which also includes other varieties of winter squash, plus summer squash such as zucchini et pattypan squash. Such C. pepo pumpkins are characterized by round fruit with a thick shell that has smooth, slightly ribbed skin and a deep yellow to orange coloration. The “handle” (stem) is tough and fibrous, with 5 distinct ribs.
Some winter squash varieties often called pumpkins come from other species of squash.
Cucurbita maxima notably gives us giant pumpkins and blue pumpkins like ‘Jarrahdale’. The popular ‘Rouge Vif D’Étampes’, also sold as ‘Cinderella’, and said to look like a red cheesewheel, is another. You can tell C. maxima “pumpkins” from true pumpkins by their soft, smooth, soft handle with no ribbing.
And spherical varieties of Cucurbita moschata, like ‘Long Island Cheese’ and ‘Autumn Buckskin’ are also considered pumpkins due to their similar appearance, although their coloration tends to be more tan or brown than orange. Commercial pumpkin pie mix is generally made from varieties of C. moschata, notably the cultivar known as ‘Dickinson Pumpkin’, rather than from true pumpkins. Again, the handle identifies them: look for ribbing and a clearly widened base.
In Australia and New Zealand, pretty much any winter squash will go under the name pumpkin.
The diversity among varieties that are classified as pumpkins is incredible! With sizes ranging from 4 ounces/113 g to over 2,000 pounds/1,000 kg (the current world record giant pumpkin weighed 2,624.6 pounds/1,190.49 kg), various unique shapes and brilliant colors like orange, yellow, white, green, blue, gray, pink, and tan, there are endless opportunities to select the perfect pumpkin.
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 necessarily 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.
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.
Choosing the Perfect Pumpkin
When selecting a pumpkin for cooking, it is best to choose a “pie pumpkin” with dense, sweet flesh.‘Pik-A-Pie’ is a go-to favorite! The sugars and lower moisture of these types hold up best in cooking.
It is also easy to grow pumpkins for harvesting edible seeds. To save time, choose a naked-seeded (hull-less or semi hull-less) pumpkin with seeds that do not need to be hulled before eating. The varieties ‘Naked Bear’ and ‘Pepitas’, an AAS Winner, are excellent all-around choices for cooking, edible seeds, and making pumpkin seed oil.
When selecting pumpkins for carving and fall decoration, choose varieties that suit your style! Traditional carving pumpkins are medium to large in size, deep orange, and lightly ribbed with a strong handle. Some standards are ‘Gladiator’, ‘Magic Lantern’ and ‘Howden’. If you’d like to get creative with your carving, try a warted (‘Warty Goblin’ or ‘Knuckle Head’), yellow (‘Mellow Yellow’), or white pumpkin (‘Super Moon’ [AAS Winner]) or ‘Lumina’).
For painting, look for a small pumpkin with a strong handle and a smooth surface. An excellent choice is All-America Selections Winner ‘Hijinks’.
Add additional interest to fall décor using miniature pumpkins with unique colors and patterns. Miniature pumpkins typically weigh less than 2 pounds/1 kg and can be found in a variety of shapes and colors; ‘Hooligan’, ‘Baby Boo’, ‘Jack Be Little’ and All-America Selections Winner ‘Wee-B-Little’ are favorites that can add a perfect pop of color.
How to Grow Pumpkins
To have mature pumpkins for use in autumn, plant seeds after all risk of frost has passed, usually between late May and mid-June in the Northern Hemisphere. Seeds can be sown directly in the garden or started indoors and should be planted at a depth of 1” (2.5 cm) in well-drained soil that has warmed to 70 °F (21 °C). To ensure fruit set and yields, allow sufficient space between each plant. Give small pumpkins 12 ft2 (1 m2), large pumpkins 24 ft2 (2 m2), and giant pumpkins 36–48 ft2 (3–4 m2) per plant.
Pumpkins perform best when they are fertilized throughout the growing season and fruit set will be strongest if the flowers are pollinated by bees. If pumpkin flowers are not pollinated completely, the fruit will start growing but will abort before full development. To ensure a bountiful pumpkin harvest, encourage bees in your garden or pollinate the flowers by hand, carrying pollen from a male flower to a female one..
When the pumpkins have matured, the stem holding the fruit will begin to dry. Harvest the pumpkin by carefully cutting the vine on each side of the fruit stem, leaving a “handle” at the point where the stem meets the vine. This will encourage the stem to maintain strength as it dries down and will minimize infection by microbes that can cause decay.
To keep longer-lasting pumpkins, wash the fruits in a diluted bleach solution, allow them to dry, and place them in a cool shady spot after harvest. Then they’ll be ready to carve, decorate, or use in the kitchen.
As pumpkins grow in the garden, it is incredible to observe the changes throughout the season, and rewarding to finish with a harvest of beautiful, versatile fruits. The uses of pumpkins in the garden and kitchen are limitless, so let your creativity bloom!
You can find pumpkin seeds locally, but if you’re looking for special varieties, consider seed catalogs. Here are few that helped supply material for this article: