By Marcia Passos Duffy
The pumpkin is a member of the cucurbit (gourd) family - much like its cousins
the summer and winter squash - which are actually fruits, not vegetables.
Pumpkins have the largest range in size of any fruit - from the tiny
Jack-be-Little variety (those itty-bitty orange pumpkins you can put on your
desk) to the impossibly large Atlantic Giant (at over 1000 pounds). Falling
somewhere in between are the carving-kind, such as the Connecticut Field and
Jack o'Lantern varieties which weigh somewhere between 10 and 25 pounds.
Pumpkins are believed to have originated in North America. Seeds from related
plants have been found in Mexico dating back to 7000 to 5500 B.C.
Native American Indians used pumpkin as a staple in their diets centuries before
the pilgrims landed. They also dried strips of pumpkin and wove them into mats.
Indians would also roast long strips of pumpkin on the open fire and eat them.
Pumpkins with the deepest orange flesh have the largest amount of Vitamin A.
Pumpkins must remain on the plant until fully mature. Maturity can be estimated
by pressure from the thumbnail on the fruit skin; if the skin is hard and can't
be scratched the fruit is mature.
Although we most often think of pumpkins as ornamental Jack-o-Lanterns, they are
a very healthy food. The flesh is high in vitamin A and potassium while the
seeds are rich in highly unsaturated oils and protein.
Most pumpkin pies are actually made from squash, not true pumpkins.
Typical Jack-o-Lantern pumpkins belong to the species Cucurbita pepo, which
makes them close relatives of summer squash, zucchini and gourds.
True pumpkins (Cucurbita pepo) rarely get to be more than 60 pounds in size with
most weighing below 25 pounds.
Pumpkins are produced from female flowers. A typical plant may contain 5 to 10
female flowers and 50 to 100 male flowers!
Without bees, there would be no pumpkins. Bees move pollen from the male flowers
to the female flowers resulting in pollination and fruit set.
A dry year will result in pumpkins that are 20% to 30% smaller than a year with
Pumpkins originated in Central America and were a staple food of native
Americans, along with beans and corn. Pumpkins and squash were prized as they
could be stored through the winter months and serve as one of the only sources
of fresh vegetables.
Seventeenth century settlers believed that pumpkin seeds could remove freckles
and cure many ills, including snakebite, bladder troubles and toothaches.
The word "bumpkin" is actually derived from the word pumpkin. By the early
1800's, New Englanders were often called "pumpkinheads" or "pumpkins," likely
due to their pumpkin- heavy diets. Over time, it was changed to "bumpkin."
Before it was nicknamed "Beantown," Boston was popularly called "Pumpkinshire."
Both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were avid pumpkin growers.
A New England flood in the 1780's was given the name "pumpkin flood" because it
occurred in October and carried fruit away to rivers. Despite their weight, the
Irish immigrants brought the tradition of carving pumpkins into Jack-o-Lanterns
to this country in the mid-19th century. The ritual is based on the legend of a
blacksmith named Jack who sold his soul to the Devil for a huge profit. When the
Devil came to collect, Jack tricked him and escaped. Eventually Jack died and,
because of his dealings with the Devil, was sent straight to hell. The Devil,
having been tricked once, didn't want Jack there. Just before the gates of Hell
closed in his face, Jack scooped up a burning coal with a half-eaten turnip and
has wandered the world ever since using this as his lantern. In America, the
turnip was replaced by a pumpkin, giving us the familiar Jack-o- Lantern.
A typical pumpkin contains from 200 to 500 seeds.
Pumpkins have been immortalized in prose and poetry. They are an important prop
in Mother Goose rhymes, Cinderella, and Washington Irving's "Legend of Sleepy
Hollow," set in New York State.
Marcia Passos Duffy is the publisher of The Heart of New England free online
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