When it comes to finding reason to celebrate something, I’m up for some fun. Talk Like A Pirate day, National Donut day, World Penguin day – I’m ready. So when the National Garden Bureau announced that 2019 was the Year of the Pumpkin, I squealed aloud in delight. Pumpkins bring out the child in me; I love the orange, red, grey, warty, smooth gourds.
Native to Peru and Colombia north through Central America to the southwestern part of the United States, the gourds Native Americans called “isqoutm Squash” have been grown for over 7,000 years as a food staple. Long storing, the seeds and flesh fed native peoples throughout winters, while the skin was dried in strips and used to wave mats for floors.
Like many New World plants, the name we use is the result of meandering through many European countries once explorers brought seeds back from the Americas. The Greek word for pumpkins, “large melon,” is “pepon.” Pepon was pronounced by the French as “pompon;” the English changed that to “Pumpion.” American colonists went with “pumpkin.”
Pumpkin is a catch-all name given to several members of the genus Curcubita – C. maxima, C. moschata and C. pepo. Botanists generally consider the orange fruit used for Jack O’ Lanterns and décor as C. maxima, while winter squash is classified within the other two species.
Pumpkins as well as squash were often planted by Native Americans with two other “sisters,” corn and beans to take advantage of their growth habits support each other and improve yield. Corn supports the bean vines, the pumpkin leaves shade the shallow roots of the corn, and the beans provide nitrogen to the soil. Not every tribe planted this way, but it was a common practice noted by European explorers and colonists.
Early pumpkins were sweet and flavorful, but in the nineteenth century, the fruit fell out of favor and cooks considered it food for the poor. But immigrants to the USA brought traditions with them from their lands, including Jack O’ Lanterns for Halloween. Originally carved from turnips, Jack O’ Lanterns soon were carved from pumpkins in the new world.
After WWII the popularity of Jack O’ Lanterns created an increased demand for pumpkins and in the early 1970s pumpkin hybridizing focused on those that were good for carving, not eating. Flavor was lost in their quest for size, shape, durability, and a thick stem. The Howden Pumpkin, considered the quintessential carving pumpkin, was developed by Jack Howden and released in 1977 by Harris Seed.
Pumpkins are heat-loving plants and should be planted after soil temperatures have warmed above 70-degress, usually end-of-May. Select a location with well-draining soil and plenty of room to let the vines run, especially if you’re growing an heirloom type, such as Jarradale or Rouge Vif d’Etamps.
Newer, semi-dwarf varieties, such as All America Selections Sorcerer or Spirit, are excellent for getting Jack-O’-Lantern sized pumpkins from smaller spaces since their vines stay 6 to 10 feet long, depending on type. If you’re interested in growing pumpkins for seeds, try the naked seed types Lady Godiva, Kakai or the AAS winner Pepitas.
Large or small, find space for a pumpkin in your garden this year.
Colorado State University Extension, together with Boulder County Parks and Open Space, provides unbiased, research-based information about consumer and family issues, horticulture, natural resources, agriculture and 4-H youth development. For more information contact Colorado State University Extension at the Boulder County Fairgrounds, 9595 Nelson Road, Box B, Longmont, 303.678.6238, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit ext.colostate.edu/boulder.