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Natural Perspectives: Much ado about pumpkins

October 26, 2011|By Vic Leipzig and Lou Murray
  • The first step in making a pie from a pumpkin is cutting the pumpkin in half and scraping out the seeds.
The first step in making a pie from a pumpkin is cutting… (Lou Murray, HB Independent )

Pumpkin season is here.

Despite threats of a pumpkin shortage due to flooding in the Midwest, the local grocery stores stock a bounty of pumpkins. Many people use them for entryway decorations for Halloween, either whole or with faces carved into them. But Vic and I use them for food, especially pies.

People tend to forget that the original purpose of pumpkins was to eat them. Over the years people have gotten accustomed to using them for decorations. Or using them for punkin' chunkin' if you're one of those people who are into gourd tossing.

Ten thousand years ago, squash and pumpkins were the first food crop domesticated by the aboriginal people of Central America. They didn't have a domestic grain crop yet; recent studies indicate that corn wasn't domesticated until 9,000 years ago.

Originally, Native Americans ate just the protein- and oil-rich seeds of gourds, as the thin rind of the gourds from which squash and pumpkins were developed was too hard and bitter to eat. But over time, the natives developed squash and pumpkins that had edible flesh.

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Today, there are three species of what we call squash or pumpkins. The difference between a squash and a pumpkin is really hard to define.

What we call pumpkins are really the same species as summer squash, while some varieties of what we call winter squash are the same species as giant pumpkins. I'm going to try to make heads and tails out of some of those pumpkin and squash varieties.

Today's Hubbard and Turk's Turban winter squash varieties originated in the Andes. They are varieties in the species Cucurbita maxima. Other varieties of this species are giant pumpkins such as Atlantic Giant and Big Max. The folks at the community garden grew a couple of those giant pumpkins this year.

It was a lot of fun watching as these pumpkins have developed over the summer. One has turned orange but rotted at one end. The other has stayed a pale lemon yellow. I'm not sure what they weigh, but I would guess somewhere around a hundred pounds each.

Cushaw, Winter Crookneck, and butternut squashes, as well as Cheese pumpkins, originated in Mexico and are of the species Cucurbita moschata. These pumpkin varieties tend to have green or tan skins rather than orange skins.

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