2019 Year of the Pumpkin

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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.

History

For many, pumpkins are associated with autumn, sweet desserts, and Halloween.

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Wild pumpkins are small and hard-shelled. Photo: http://www.tripadvisor.co.za

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.

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Painting representing the first Thanksgiving. Ill.: http://www.history.com.

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.

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The tradition of pumpkin carving was brought over from Ireland. Photo: http://www.organicauthority.com

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.

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Clockwise from top left: pattypan squash, yellow summer squash, zucchini and pumpkins. These are all varieties of Cucurbita pepo. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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.

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The blue pumpkin (here, ‘Jarrahdale’ comes from the species Cucurbita maxima. Note the smooth, unribbed handle. Photo: Garden Trends

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.

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The pumpkin wannabe ‘Autumn Buckskin’. Photo: Seeds By Design

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.

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There is a wide variety of pumpkins. Photo: http://www.italian-feelings.com

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.

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Hull-less varieties save time when harvesting edible seeds. Here, ‘Naked Bear’. Photo: Garden Trends

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.

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‘Warty Goblin’. Photo: Harris Seed

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’.

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Miniature pumpkins come in a wide range of colors. Photo: http://www.veseys.com

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

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Sowing pumpkin seeds. Photo: http://www.lovethegarden.com

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 ft(1 m2), large pumpkins 24 ft(2 m2), and giant pumpkins 36–48 ft(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..

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When harvesting, leave a handle for easy handling and to prevent diseases. Photo: American Meadows

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!

Sources

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:

Make the Most of Your Jack O’Lantern

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Just don’t toss your jack-o’lantern after Halloween: it still has many uses. Source: William Warby, http://www.flickr.com

As you’re carving your jack-o’lantern for Halloween, don’t forget that you can use the seeds you collect.

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Roasted pumpkin seeds: a healthy treat! Source: www.kitchentreaty.com

Remove the filaments and rinse the seeds, then roast them with a little salt. Delicious!

But don’t roast all of them: dry some on a paper towel and store them in a paper envelope. You can use them to sow your own pumpkins next year.

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Don’t throw pumpkin flesh away: if  it’s still firm, use it! Source: www.kitchentreaty.com

Don’t forget too that pumpkin flesh is perfectly edible. You can make a whole host of recipes from your jack-o’lantern: pumpkin purée, pumpkin soup, pumpkin pie, muffins, bread… In fact, you can use any recipe that calls for squash, because pumpkin, after all, is just a big orange squash.

Of course, if you intend to use your jack-o’lantern in cooking, the flesh has to be in good condition and not starting to decompose, with no signs of mold. So don’t carve your pumpkin more than two days before Halloween. For the very freshest pumpkin flesh, carve it on Halloween afternoon. It will still be in perfect shape when you’re ready to cook the following day.

If you have to carve it earlier (up to a week earlier), you can help keep the flesh in top shape by coating it in vegetable oil. It really doesn’t matter which kind of oil: the important thing is to coat the exposed flesh with a barrier to keep fungus and mold off.

How to Compost a Jack-O’Lantern

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Put soften or moldy pumpkins into the compost pile. Source: www.missoulacompostcollectionllc.com

You don’t like pumpkin? (Probably because you have never tasted it!) Or the flesh has begun to soften, the first step in decomposition? At least don’t toss your jack-o’lantern into the trash (what a waste!). Instead break it into smaller chunks and put it in the compost bin. Pumpkin flesh is considered green matter, perfect for mixing with the fall leaves (brown matter) that are so abundant at this season.

Or just toss pumpkin pieces into your vegetable garden or flower bed and cover them with leaves. Mother Nature will take care of their decomposition.

How Pumpkins Became Jack-O’-Lanterns

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How did the pumpkin go from being a field vegetable to a scary carved lanternl? Source: Wildcat Dunny, Flickr

This week thousands of people, young and old, will be carving a pumpkin for Halloween. Lit with a candle or a light bulb, the bland surface of the pumpkin will be converted into a figure of absolute horror—or a friendly face—that will be the star of the show on Halloween, the evening of October 31st. But where does this curious tradition come from?

It turns out it’s a fusion of New World and Old Word customs that lead to carving of pumpkins for Halloween. Read on to learn more!

Origins in the New World

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A field of pumpkins in the fall. Note that frost has killed back the leaves, but the fruits are mostly intact. Source:  Kam Abbott, Flickr

The classic pumpkin is a type of squash (Cucurbita pepo). It has been cultivated for a long time, with seeds of C. pepo starting to appear in archeological sites about 10,000 BCE and we can assume it was therefore being at least harvested by that time, if not yet cultivated. As squash did become cultivated, all sorts of varieties were developed, with large or small fruit, smooth or rough skin, as small as a golf ball or as large as a small car, round, oblong, curved or irregular, and unicolored, marbled or striped in a wide range of colors. Traditionally, the term pumpkin (from the Greek pepon for “large melon,” later “pompion” in French) referred to fairly large rounded squash, usually orange, although these days white pumpkins are not uncommon and even turquoise ones can be seen.

Growing squash spread throughout the Americas, to the point that, when the first Europeans arrived, squash were being grown just about everywhere they were able to grow. When French explorer Jacques Cartier visited what was to become Quebec City for the first time in 1535, for example, he found the fields of the region filled with “pompions.” It was, however, the Spanish explorer Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (yes, you translated that correctly: his family name does indeed mean “cow face!”) who saw squash in Florida in 1528 and brought the first seeds back to Europe.

Squash of all kinds quickly became popular in the Old World, but pumpkins especially caught on in China and Hungary, where they’re still grown on a large scale. However, they’re generally used as fruits or vegetables, not as sculptures.

Growing Pumpkins

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You can tell this flower is a female by the rounded ovary at its base. Photo: RoRo, Wikimedia Commons

The pumpkin is a creeping plant and will even climb if there is a very strong support it can cling to. It’s an annual, sown in the spring when the soil has warmed up. All summer it produces orange male and female flowers (hint: the female flower is easily distinguished from the male, because it already has a small pumpkin-shaped ovary at its base). The fruits grow quickly and it’s not uncommon to find pumpkins weighing over 100 lbs/50 kg!

The pumpkin is considered a “winter squash”: that is, the fruit is eaten at full maturity, not when it is small and still seedless, as with summer squash like zucchinis. Pumpkins are harvested in the fall, usually in October. In other words, just in time for Halloween.

The pumpkin’s thick flesh is edible and notably used in soups and pies, although “pumpkin pie” is often prepared from other winter squashes and not always true pumpkins. The seed too are edible. A ripe pumpkin will keep for several months in a root cellar. Canned, they’re available all year long.

Vegetable Carving: an Irish Tradition

At first, there was no connection between Halloween and pumpkins … until Irish immigrants brought a very curious tradition with them to the New World.

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Jack-o’-lantern made from a turnip in the pure Irish tradition. Source: Rannpháirtí anaithnid, Wikimedia Commons

They used to carve turnips into lanterns to protect their crops (and their homes) at fall harvest. Illuminated with a candle, these scary carved lanterns (jack-o’-lanterns) were supposed to ward off evil spirits who could spoil crops, make people ill or bring bad luck. And they were supposed to come out and wander the earth on “All Hallows Evening” (Halloween), that is, the night before All Saints’ Day … unless a few brightly lit carved turnips scared them away.

However, pumpkins are much easier to carve than turnips and, in the New World at least, quickly replaced the turnip as the ideal vegetable for carving. However, it was not until 1866 that the first reports associating carved pumpkins with Halloween were recorded. The tradition spread throughout the United States and Canada. In French Canada, the tradition is much more recent, dating only to the end of the 20th century. In Europe, where people are only just discovering North American Halloween traditions, carving pumpkins is still seen as something new and exotic.

Save Your Seeds

When sculpting your pumpkin this week, remember not to eat all the seeds, but to store a few for next year. Just clean and rinse them carefully, dry them in the sun for a few days and store until spring. Then you’ll be able to grow your own pumpkins for next year’s Halloween!20171025A Wildcat Dunny, Flickr

Summer Squash, Winter Squash

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Summer squash. Source: Tim Sackton, Wikimedia Commons

As you shop for packs of seeds for your summer garden, remember that there are two distinct groups of squash that are used differently in the kitchen: summer squash and winter squash. Most vegetable gardeners will want to plant a few of each type to meet their needs.

Interestingly, summer squash and most winter squash are derived from the same species, Cucurbita pepo. The difference is simply that summer squash was developed to be especially tender and tasty well before it matures, when its skin is still thin and its seeds are barely visible. Zucchinis (courgettes) and pattypans are the best-known summer squashes. You harvest summer squashes regularly throughout much of the summer.

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The pumpkin is the best-known winter squash.

The name “winter squash” might throw a beginning gardener. It doesn’t mean it is sown or grown in winter. In fact, you sow it in late spring, when the soil warms up, just like summer squash. The difference is that it can be stored for long periods, well into winter.

Winter squash is harvested when it is fully ripe, in late summer or fall. By then its skin will be hard, its flesh dense and less watery and its seeds (which are also edible!) will be fully mature. Of the many the squashes derived from C. pepo, the best known are probably pumpkins, vegetable marrows and spaghetti squashes.

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Butternut squash

There are also other squash species that produce winter squash, notably C. moschata (crookneck squash, butternut squash, etc.) and C. maxima (buttercup, Hubbard and others).20170310A

The Fascinating Story of the Pumpkin

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Halloween pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo).

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.

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Pumpkin field.

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.

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World’s biggest pumpkin.

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.

Pumpkin Carving

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.

Laidback Gardener Tip of the Day

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Separate Beds for Squash and Pumpkins

juillet 24If you want to harvest your squash or pumpkin seeds for sowing the following year, avoid growing more than one cultivar in the same garden, otherwise it is certain that they will cross. Therefore, when you sow the seeds harvested from a zucchini that grew next to a spaghetti squash, they won’t produce a zucchini new year, but something in between. Always separate the different kinds of squash at least 115 feet (35 m). In other words, in a different garden entirely

At least, that’s the simple explanation. There are exceptions. It turns out some squashes belong to other species, such as the “giant pumpkin” (which is not a true pumpkin at all, but a giant squash, Cucurbita maxima) and the butternut squash (C. moschata) and they cannot interbreed with the typical squashes (C. pepo). In that case, proximity isn’t a problem. However, the vast majority of both summer and winter squashes, including true pumpkins (field pumpkins), zucchinis, spaghetti squashes, crooknecks, acorn squashes, delicata squashes, and vegetable marrows, although they differ greatly in size, shape and color, belong to the species C. pepo and will therefore easily cross if planted close together.