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You see a lot of pumpkins at this time of year, in food, drinks, and decorations. But if all you know is the orange, round, Jack-o’-Lantern pumpkin, you may be woefully underestimating this group of plants. Pumpkins (Cucurbita pepo, mostly) are part of an exclusively New World genus that includes some of the oldest cultivated crops in the Americas. Native peoples from Maine to Argentina have grown them for centuries, and Europeans arriving in the 1600s were quick to adopt them for both human and livestock consumption.
“Pumpkin” is a general term for any squash that meets certain visual criteria. The most popular pumpkin of all time, the Connecticut Field pumpkin that can be found by the ton in bins in front of grocery stores all through October, is actually the same species as zucchini. Atlantic Giant pumpkins, the largest fruits on Earth, are a different species altogether, Cucurbita maxima. Gorgeously fluted French cheese pumpkins are another species still, Cucurbita moschata. Most people refer to any roughly round(ish) squash as a pumpkin, especially if it is orange, yellow, or red.
Europeans first encountered squash in the 15th and 16th centuries, during the colonization of the New World. American Indians used winter squash (pumpkins) fresh and dried, prepared plain, in cakes, breads, puddings, and relishes. Puritans arriving in New England were quick to see pumpkins’ value and adopt them both for their own consumption and for fattening livestock.
As trade among New World colonies increased, new species of Cucurbita arrived from South America that also include things commonly known as pumpkins. C. maxima in the form of the hubbard squash arrived in Marblehead, Massachusetts in the 1700s from the West Indies, where it had been brought from Argentina and Bolivia. New cultivars including the Atlantic Giant pumpkin were developed in the north. Many varieties of Cucurbita maxima lack the fibrous texture of Cucurbita pepo, so they make superior table vegetables.
Pumpkins are still primarily used consumption and decoration (though launching them long distances through the air seems to be gaining popularity). Pumpkin seeds are a popular snack, but shucking the thick unpalatable seed coats can be time consuming and unpleasant. If you’re into pumpkin seeds, try growing a naked-seeded variety like ‘Lady Godiva’ next year—the seeds don’t develop the leathery tan coating, but remain soft and green even when ripe. Pumpkins and other winter squash will keep for a very long time—years even—though they become spongier and drier as the water within them slowly evaporates through their shells. Pumpkins stored for a couple of months after harvest often become sweeter, though, as starches in the fruit are broken down into their component sugars.
Given enough compost and water, pumpkins and other squashes practically grow themselves here in Colorado. As winter nights force us indoors earlier and earlier, spend some time with a seed catalog (in print or online) and maybe try a new variety of pumpkin beyond the grocery store standards next year. You won’t be disappointed!