It’s an iconic symbol of the season. Porches, lamp posts, benches and steps are decorated with pumpkins—they are so ubiquitous that today 80% of the pumpkins grown in the U.S. are available in the month of October alone.
For Halloween, these orange orbs are often carved with ghoulish faces illuminated with candles to the delight of children and adults alike. Originally known as jack-o-lanterns, we have the Irish to thank for this tradition that has folded into the fabric of our holiday. But the original jack-o-lantern wasn’t carved of pumpkin—pumpkins didn’t exist in Ireland. Ancient Celtic cultures in Ireland carved turnips. On All Hallow’s Eve, the Irish placed an ember in them to ward off evil spirits. The lore behind this tradition is the Irishman, Stingy Jack, who bargained with the devil and was doomed to roam the Earth with only a hollowed turnip to light his way.
There are other ways to use pumpkins as festive decoration. Use them as planters and set your Thanksgiving table apart.
History of the pumpkin in the Americas
There is more to the history of pumpkins to appreciate. One of the oldest known food crops in the western hemisphere, pumpkins are native to parts of the southwestern U.S., Mexico, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. Pumpkins are known to have been cultivated since about 3500 BCE. Some archaeological evidence shows that ancient Aztecs used pumpkin seeds as a quick energy snack. Native Americans roasted long strips of pumpkins over a fire and also dried pumpkin, weaving the strips into mats. Throughout South and Central America pumpkin pulp has long been used as a treatment for burns.
When European colonists arrived in the New World, they relied heavily on pumpkin as a food source. Colonists prepared pumpkin by cutting off the top of the fruit, removing the seeds and pulp and replacing them with a mixture of milk, spices and honey. This food was the origin of the pumpkin pie enjoyed today.
Cultivating pumpkins in the southeast Texas home garden is possible, although challenging. Pumpkins are heat-loving plants with seed germination dependent upon warm soil. In Montgomery County, late March to early April is the optimum planting time. Pumpkins require a day time temperature of 85-95 degrees with a night time temperature range of 60-70 degrees.
When preparing the garden for pumpkin growing, apply a generous amount of high quality compost to provide the nutrition requirements of these heavy feeders. Select a location with well-drained soil and few weeds, and select a pumpkin variety that’s small or dwarf since the large-fruited varieties require a space at least 18 feet in width and length for the vigorous vines. Smaller pumpkin varieties can be successfully grown in a space with plants two feet apart and rows 6 feet apart. If space is limited, you can even grow them in a pot.
Since pumpkin is a member of the cucurbit family, it’s susceptible to the same pests and diseases which plague squash, cucumbers and other cucurbits. Insect pests include: squash bugs, squash vine borer, cucumber beetles and aphids. Plant diseases include powdery mildew, leaf spot, black rot, gummy stem blight, mosaic virus and bacterial wilt. Our local, frequently damp climate provides perfect conditions for these diseases. Removing plant debris and careful tool cleaning and sanitation will help prevent disease. For high quality fruit with a long life, harvesting at maturity is crucial. A pumpkin is mature when the entire shell has developed uniform hardness.
Cooking with pumpkins
A versatile fruit for culinary endeavors, pumpkin lends itself to preparations ranging from soups to pies and breads. No wonder the pumpkin has found its way onto the Thanksgiving table. For inspiration in the kitchen, see these pumpkin recipes from Fine Cooking.
Nutritionally, pumpkin is a powerful food which is low in calories and fat but high in fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin B, potassium, protein and iron. One cup of cooked pumpkin contains only 49 calories. Since every part of the pumpkin is edible, experiment with preparing not only the pulp but also the seeds, flowers, leaves and stems. Check out these guidelines for processing pumpkins.