Now that we’re well into October, you can barely turn around without catching sight of one of autumn’s most ubiquitous symbols — the pumpkin. Pumpkin patches, plastic pumpkins, pumpkin costumes, jack o’ lanterns, and pumpkin spice lattes — pumpkins are everywhere. But how much do you really know about this orange fruit? Yep, that’s right, botanically speaking, pumpkins are classified as fruit!
Along with summer squash (like zucchini) and winter squash (like acorn or butternut), pumpkins are a member of the Cucurbita genus. Cucurbits originated in the Americas and were one of the first plants ever domesticated by humans over 8,000 years ago. Aztec, Mayan, and Native American diets all featured pumpkin, and some groups even used dried pumpkin fibers to weave mats.
Almost all parts of the pumpkin plant can be eaten, including the fruit, seeds, blossoms, and young shoots. The fruit is high in fiber, vitamins A and C, and contains more potassium than bananas.
The type of pumpkin you are probably most familiar with is the carving pumpkin used for decoration, but many varieties are grown for other specialized uses. Pie pumpkins are bred to be sweeter, smoother, and less hollow than their decorative cousins, while seed pumpkins produce hullless seeds that can be used to make oil or to be snacked on as pepitas. Other varieties are grown to achieve those record-breaking giants you sometimes see at fall festivals. The largest pumpkin ever grown on record was 2,624 pounds — almost as heavy as my car! Don’t think that pumpkins just come in orange either — these versatile plants produce in several colors including yellow, white, green, tan, red, and even shades of blue.
This year was a great year for pumpkin growing in Ohio. July rains followed by a relatively dry August and September produced a bumper crop. Behind only Illinois and California, Ohio is third in the nation for pumpkin production and grew 93 million pounds of it in 2016. Much of Ohio’s pumpkin crop is used for decorative uses, such as jack o’ lanterns. However, did you know that the first jack o’ lanterns weren’t carved out of pumpkins at all? The Halloween holiday got its start over in Europe, before explorers had brought pumpkins seeds back from the Americas. Instead, turnips were used for carving and placed around houses where it was thought they would protect against evil spirits.
As a home gardener, I know only too well that pumpkins and their relatives are vulnerable to a variety of maladies including downy mildew, squash bugs, and squash vine borers (my absolute least favorite garden pest!). On the flip side, cucurbits bring one of my favorite beneficial insects to the garden as well: the squash bee. Squash bees, the collective name for about three dozen species, are specialized feeders that are native to North America. That means that unlike the generalized honey bee, squash bees feed only from the flowers of their namesake plants, the cucurbits. Squash and pumpkin plants produce many flowers that are each only open for one day in a short window of time between sunrise and noon so early morning is the best time to catch a glimpse of this industrious pollinator.
To see identification pictures of squash bees and other common bees in Ohio, visit OSU Extension’s website at ohioline.osu.edu/factsheet/ent-57. Also, make sure to follow the Delaware SWCD on Facebook to stay up on the latest conservation news in the county.
Rebecca Longsmith is the resource conservationist for the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District.