Post-Halloween Pumpkin Ponderings

Ever wonder why pumpkins are so popular in the fall? Photo by liz west. Pumpkins. CC. https://flic.kr/p/5msURe

Ever wonder why pumpkins are so popular in the fall? Photo by liz west. Pumpkins. CC. https://flic.kr/p/5msURe

Let’s face it. As food, fresh pumpkins are not popular. In Canada they have a week or two of glory alongside the bulk candy corn and bat-shaped gummies. As thousands of jack-o’-lanterns are sent to the compost today, I look into the history and botany of pumpkins.

Family matters

Okay, first things first. Pumpkins are fruit. They belong to the family Cucurbitaceae, which has a nice ring to it if you like Latin. This family includes pumpkins, squash and gourds. Generally, pumpkins are carved, squash are cooked, and gourds are bumpy decorations.

Origin story

Out of the darkness, a delicious fruit will arise. Photo by DeusXFlorida. Halloween Pumpkins at the field. CC.https://flic.kr/p/8NNSeK

Out of the darkness, a delicious fruit will arise. Photo by DeusXFlorida. Halloween Pumpkins at the field. CC.https://flic.kr/p/8NNSeK


Just like corn and tomatoes, pumpkins are from Mexico. The name comes from Greek word ‘pepon’, which means ‘large melon’.

Like a lot of good stuff to eat, pumpkins made their way north. When the Pilgrims arrived in North America, the aboriginal peoples they met were already growing pumpkins and roasting them over the fire. They also used dried strips to make mats.

Thoroughly convinced of their deliciousness, the colonists started popped pumpkins into stews, soups and desserts. Legend has it that pumpkin pie was invented when someone decided to bake a hollowed-out pumpkin filled with milk, spices and honey. The colonists even made pumpkin beer! They brewed it with hops, persimmons and maple sugar.

Pumpkin eaters

Pumpkin pie, the Thanksgiving favorite. Photo by Jo. CC.  https://flic.kr/p/aDMSUR

Pumpkin pie, the Thanksgiving favorite. Photo by Jo. CC. https://flic.kr/p/aDMSUR

From North America pumpkins made their way to Europe. There it’s served as a vegetable. As we know, in Canada and the U.S. it’s served in pies, muffins, soups and lattes. Oh, wait. There’s actually no pumpkin in pumpkin spice lattes.

Pumpkins are good eating! They’re full of vitamin A and potassium. The flowers are edible too, if you can get them. Pumpkins are also used to feed livestock.

Halloween, or Christmas 2.1

Most of the pumpkins grown in North America turn into Jack-O'-Lanterns. Photo by Clinton Steeds. Pumpkin Carving in the Park. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9cRyQQ

Most of the pumpkins grown in North America turn into Jack-O’-Lanterns. Photo by Clinton Steeds. Pumpkin Carving in the Park. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9cRyQQ

When it comes to spending money on decorations, Halloween is close on the heels of Christmas. In Canada, 90 per cent of the pumpkin crop is sold fresh to be turned into jack-o’-lanterns. Less than 10 per cent is canned. This would explain why the canned pumpkin I purchase is so expensive.

In response to growing decorating demand, pumpkin production in the last 20 years has been increasing. Canada’s crop is worth over $15 million, and is an important source of income for many growers.

Jack-o’-turnip?

This is the scariest Jack-O'-Lantern I've ever seen. It must be the shrunken head look. Photo by IrishFireside. Jack-O-Lantern. CC. https://flic.kr/p/8jEbmP

This is the scariest Jack-O’-Lantern I’ve ever seen. It must be the shrunken head look. Photo by IrishFireside. Jack-O-Lantern. CC. https://flic.kr/p/8jEbmP

The tradition of carving a face in a fruit (which you have to admit, is a little bit odd) comes to us from Ireland and Scotland.

An Irish myth tells of a man named Jack so deceitful that neither heaven nor hell would let him in. His soul was doomed to wander the earth carrying a lantern carved out of a turnip. Yes, you heard right. A turnip.

To keep Jack of the Lantern away, people carved scary faces in vegetables and put them in their windows to scare him away. Europe being pumpkin-less at the time, they used turnips, potatoes and beets instead.

Immigrants brought the Celtic holiday to North America, where it grew to be the commercial scare-fest we see today.

Pumpkins are needy

Every vine produces one or two pumpkins. Notice how far apart they are. Photo by kmadird.CC. https://flic.kr/p/ayicVw

Every vine produces one or two pumpkins. Notice how far apart they are. Photo by kmadird.CC. https://flic.kr/p/ayicVw

For Canadian farmers growing this subtropical plant can be tricky.

Pumpkins love heat and they need space. If it’s too cold they will only produce male flowers, which don’t become fruit. If they are crowded, they produce smaller fruit.

In addition to this neediness, each plant only produces 1-2 large pumpkins. Miniature pumpkin varieties, which nauseating names like ‘Baby Boo’, ‘Sweetie Pie’, ‘Jack-Be-Little’ and ‘Munchkin’, produce 12-15 fruit per plant.

The bee dance

This is one demanding female flower, looking for lots of bee love. Photo by Emilian Robert Vicol. Yellow-Pumpkin-Flowers_59053. CC. https://flic.kr/p/bvuSum

This is one demanding female flower, looking for lots of bee love. Photo by Emilian Robert Vicol. Yellow-Pumpkin-Flowers_59053. CC. https://flic.kr/p/bvuSum


In keeping with their neediness, female pumpkin flowers need to be pollinated at least 15 times to produce fruit. That’s right, 15 times!

Unfortunately, bees don’t like visiting pumpkin flowers because the blooms are too far apart. In addition, there has 10 male flowers for every female flower, which further reduces the chance a bee will visit a female flower.

To add to the stakes, a female flower is only open for one day, usually from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. It’s a wonder we have any pumpkins at all!

References

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/pumpkin/
http://napavalleyregister.com/lifestyles/food-and-cooking/not-just-for-halloween-pumpkin-is-a-staple-of-fall/article_b72c05c6-4853-51a4-a892-3ce1cad031fa.html
http://urbanext.illinois.edu/pumpkins/history.cfm
http://urbanext.illinois.edu/pumpkins/facts.cfm
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/298713/jack-o-lantern
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/483389/pumpkin
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/252875/Halloween
http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/crops/facts/00-031.htm

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About Amelia

I am a recent biology graduate and current journalism student exploring career opportunities in science communications.

6 responses to “Post-Halloween Pumpkin Ponderings

  1. Pingback: Alarming Avocados | lab bench to park bench

  2. Anthropology? Very cool! I prefer psychology and sociology but anthro still tickles my fancy, to put it into funny terms.

    And I happen to love learning weird facts 🙂

  3. Thanks for your kind comments Daniel!

    Biology taught me to love Latin too.

    I agree that the cultural aspects of Halloween are fascinating. I have a minor in Anthropology, so the culture stuff often sneaks into my posts. Glad I could enlighten you about pumpkins. I learned a ton doing research for this post, and I love sharing weird facts with others.

  4. This is very well-written, Amelia. I like that “which has a nice ring to it if you like Latin” part. I do like Latin. 🙂

    I did not realize pumpkin spice lattes don’t have pumpkin in it… How strange!

    You’re right, that is one freaky looking turnip. Thanks for the little story about the Jack O’ Lantern origins. I love the mythology behind All Hallow’s Eve. I also prefer to call it that because it sounds a bit more mystical. I’m personally more interested in the mythology behind Halloween more than pumpkins, so that was probably my favourite part of your article. Still – now I know more about pumpkins than I ever thought I would!

  5. Thanks! I thought so too.

  6. Diane

    Fascinating!

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