Master Gardener: Pumpkins

One of America’s oldest native crops, pumpkin was an important food staple long before Europeans discovered them. Cultivated independently by the Native Americans of North and South America, pumpkins — or more accurately, pumpkin seeds — have been found at archaeological sites in the American southwest dating back six thousand years, as well as sites throughout Mexico, Central and South America, and the eastern United States.

Evidently, seeds were the only part consumed by these ancient cultures because the flesh of most wild pumpkin was too bitter to eat. Once cultivation altered the pumpkin enough to make it palatable, Native Americans devoured every part of the plant — seeds, flesh, flowers, and leaves. Pumpkin could be baked or roasted whole in the fire, cut up and boiled, or added to soup.

Almost every early European explorer commented on the profusion of pumpkins in the New World. Even Columbus mentioned them on his first voyage.

Pumpkin, or at least pumpkin flavor, is more popular than ever thanks to the development of a flavor called pumpkin spice. You can find this flavor in coffee, coffee whiteners, cereal, even vodka and lip balm – the flavor is everywhere. The one thing most of these products have in common is they have never even seen a real pumpkin. It is all artificial. So what do you know about ‘real’ pumpkins?

Pumpkin Facts:

• Total U.S. pumpkin production in major pumpkin producing states was valued at $141 million.

• Total production of pumpkins by major pumpkin-producing states: 1.1 billion pounds

• The top pumpkin production states are Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and California.

• Pumpkins are grown primarily for processing with a small percentage grown for ornamental sales through you-pick farms, farmers’ market and retail sales.

• Pumpkin seeds can be roasted as a snack.

• Pumpkins contain potassium and Vitamin A.

• Pumpkin flowers are edible.

• Pumpkins are used to make soups, pies and breads.

• Pumpkins originated in Central America.

• In early colonial times, pumpkins were used as an ingredient for the crust of pies, not the filling.

• Pumpkins are 90 percent water.

• Pumpkins are fruit.

Punpkin Varieties

If you want to go to the store or farmers market and pick up pumpkins, you may have many choices because there are many pumpkin varieties. Here is a quick list of common pumpkins you may find at the market.

• The jack-o’-lantern is the standard pumpkin most everyone will identify with in fall. These pumpkins are generally medium sized and are good for decorating and carving. While they are OK for cooking, they don’t have the best flavor or texture for many dishes. If your pumpkin pursuits are purely culinary, stick to another variety. If you want to use them for decoration then cook them (or eat the seeds) afterward, these are fine.

• The pie pumpkin is a small, round pumpkin that has a much creamier flesh and a much better flavor than the jack-o’-lantern varieties. Their small size means they aren’t great for carving, though. You can cut these pumpkins into halves and roast to get the flesh cooked.

• Fairytale pumpkins are becoming more visible at farmers markets. They are squat, almost flat and have a light-orange or tan rind color. Sometimes, you’ll find them covered with warts (a common pumpkin genetic trait). The outer rind is hard to cut into, but the creamy flesh and small seed cavity mean they can be pretty tasty.

• The rouge vif d’Etampes is a red heirloom pumpkin from 1800s France. It has a color between orange and red. Most are medium sized, but they can grow large. They have a creamy, sweet texture that is good for many dishes.

• Giant pumpkins are those massive pumpkins you often see on TV and at festivals. While the size may be impressive, the flavor is not. Note: The bigger the pumpkin, usually the grainier and less flavorful the flesh.