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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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!