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Fifteen Pretty Cool Facts About Pumpkins
By Heath Shive
America is pretty pumpkin-crazy from September through November. In 2012, American Studies Professor Cindy Ott wrote an exhaustive book entitled Pumpkins: The Curious History of an American Icon - which details how the pumpkin went from poor people's food to an autumn idol of Americana.
From her book, here are some facts for your pumpkin “fix.”
1. The word pumpkin is a derivation of the French pompion, which comes from the Latin pepo, meaning to ripen, or “cook by the sun.” Before Europeans colonized the Americas, a pompion connoted a large fruit, melon or gourd – basically, anything round in a garden.
2. Although Americans today commonly refer to the pumpkin as a vegetable, it is by definition a fruit! It is a seed packet encased in flesh and develops from a flower, like apples and berries.
3. The pumpkin is probably the oldest domesticated plant in the Western Hemisphere! Archaeologists discovered the oldest domesticated pumpkin seeds in a cave at Guilá Naquitz, Oaxaca, Mexico. The seeds date from 10,000 to 8,000 years ago, which is 2,000 years earlier than the oldest corn or bean seeds yet found!
4. What we call a “Pumpkin” today was domesticated by American Indians living in eastern North American about 5,000 years ago. Their yellow and green squashes were the source for the species Cucurbita pepo. The modern field pumpkin (your jack-o’-lantern) is born from the species Cucurbita pepo!
5. Here’s where it gets a little weird. The orange field pumpkin is derived from species Cucurbita pepo – and so is the zucchini! Zucchini, acorn squash, patty pan squash, and the classic orange field pumpkin are all the same species! They’re just different varieties (cultivars).
6. But there’s more than one species of pumpkin! The other great pumpkin species is Cucurbita moschata. From C. moschata, we also get butternut squash, winter crookneck, and the famous Dickinson pumpkin (the best pumpkin for pies). C. moschata dates date back to 6,900 years ago and was born in Mexico. The pumpkin species C. moschata is the pumpkin you touch more often, because it’s the pumpkin you eat – not the pumpkin you carve.
7. That’s right! Your jack-o’-lantern and your pumpkin pie are made from two different kinds of pumpkin! Your jack-o’-lantern is made from Cucurbita pepo, but your pumpkin pie is made from Cucurbita moschata. This fact is often overlooked so that some people believe that pumpkin pie is actually made from squash. No, no, no! Pumpkin pie is made from pumpkins - just a different species of pumpkin, the Dickinson pumpkin of Cucurbita moschata!
8. To be more precise, about 90% of the pumpkin eaten in the United States is made from the Dickinson pumpkin, a pumpkin variety of C. moschata. Dickinson pumpkins are famous for having the most flesh and the best taste. Libby’s – the most popular brand of canned pumpkin – makes all of its canned pumpkin from a variety of the Dickinson called “Libby’s Select.”
9. Incidentally, the word squash is derived from the Algonquian language of Native America. Squash and pumpkins were called isquoutersquash or askutasquash, summer squash and winter squash respectively. Squash means “to eat raw.” Pumpkins were included with askutasquash.
10. One of the greatest assets of pumpkin and winter squash was their ability to be preserved over the winter, when other food was scarce. Memoirs of French voyageurs describe how American Natives would cut the pumpkin into slices and string them up to dry. It would last for months and was eaten like beef jerky.
11. All colonial farms had pumpkin patches by the 1700s. The pumpkins were famous for bearing a large number of large fruits that could last all winter. Pumpkins were crucial to colonial survival. As Cindy Ott describes, “When people had no apples for pies, barley for beer, or meat for supper, they could substitute the prolific pumpkin.”
12. In the early 1800s, pumpkins were derided as a “poor people’s food.” By this time, pumpkins were used principally as food for cows and pigs.
13. As squashes acquired respectability as a food and commodity, they became a part of the modern world. The pumpkin was different. Because the pumpkin – the field pumpkin in particular –retained its association with the subsistence farm economy, it remained a powerful symbol of nature.
14. By the late 1800s, the only time most people ate pumpkin was for Thanksgiving. The pumpkin pie became a Northern tradition – and so its symbolic power increased.
15. The pumpkin became more and more powerful as a symbol - for the harvest season, from Halloween to Thanksgiving. By 2007, 87 percent of pumpkins were not even eaten but were put on display as Halloween and autumn decorations. The pumpkin is now an American icon.
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Ott, Cindy. Pumpkins: The Curious History of an American Icon. University of Washington Press, 2012.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.