The Great Pumpkin: The Inside Scoop

By Melinda Heigel, EMGV

Note for readers: As we enter spooky season, we at the Durham Cooperative Extension wanted to resurrect this informative and timely blog post from our colleague, Melinda Heigel. Our hope is you’ll view each jack-o-lantern and porch pumpkin a bit differently this October. Enjoy reading over your first pumpkin spice latte of the season!

Fall on display at the Durham Farmers’ Market. (Image credit: Melinda Heigel)

This time of year, the pumpkin is ubiquitous–dotting roadside stands, church lawns, farmers’ markets, heaped in huge boxes in grocery store aisles, and of course on many front porches. There’s even a giant pumpkin contest annually at the North Carolina State Fair. A true staple in our cultural landscape, their happy colors advertise the literal fruits of gardeners’ labor during the long summer growing season. In addition to its starring role as the jack o’lantern at month’s end, there’s a lot to discover when it comes to this fall icon.

Impacting Economies and Researching New Cultivars

Pumpkins aren’t just child’s play at Halloween; they occupy an important role in agriculture. Annually, the US produces 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins. In 2016 the value of North Carolina’s pumpkin crop exceeded 15 million dollars, and the demand for fall pumpkins only continues to increase. In 2017, North Carolina was the fourth largest pumpkin grower in the nation. Pumpkins tend to grow best in the higher elevations of western North Carolina where the soils and climate lessen disease pressures and equal more robust harvests. Research institutions like North Carolina State University (NCSU) and University of Tennessee perform trials to test new cultigens of pumpkins based on yield, disease resistance, size, and traits like color, shape, handle characteristics (that’s the stem or, in botanical terms, the penducle— the plant part that connects the pumpkin to the vine). Since pumpkins are a growing business, you may be surprised at all the selections available now compared to the “old-fashioned” orange pumpkins many of us recall from childhood. The traditional orange look (even with new and emerging cultivars in that category) is still the favorite, comprising 80 – 90% of the market, and 10-20% are known as “heirloom” pumpkins, although new varieties are constantly being bread. Jonathan Schultheis, a professor and Extension specialist in the Department of Horticultural Science at NCSU, says when it comes to pumpkins, consumers are drawn to “the weirder the better.” 1

(Left to right) “Traditional-style” pumpkins at a local roadside market in Boone, NC. Finding the next popular pumpkin. Pumpkins in joint variety trial conducted by North Carolina State University and University of Tennessee include ‘Blue Doll,’ ‘Warty Gnome,’ ‘Silver Moon,’ and ‘Warty Goblin.’ (Image credit: Melinda Heigel and “2019 North Carolina and Tennessee Pumpkin Cultigen Evaluations,” Schultheis, et al.)

“Squashing” Myths and Discovering Origins

With all this talk about new pumpkins, is there a true traditional variety? The word pumpkin is a catch-all term which includes many types of winter squash that are members of the genus Curcubita (in the same Cucurbitaceae family as melons, yellow summer squash, zucchini, and cucumbers). The large orange pumpkin types are generally the species C. pepo and are bred more for their appearance than their taste. Some folks define a pumpkin by its orange color alone. Other winter squash like C. moschata and C. maxima can be commonly called pumpkins, too. Don’t be fooled though; the canned product we all buy in the grocery store for making Thanksgiving pumpkin pie is is C. moschata, and usually is identified as a species of winter squash more like butternut or acorn squash types. If you prefer to cook your own pumpkin, choose one that you will find labeled as a pie pumpkin or sugar pumpkin. These tend to be milder and sweeter in taste. These tend to range between 6 and 8 pounds.

As evidenced through archeological research, pumpkins and winter squash are native to the Americas, including what is now the southwestern area of the US to as far south as Colombia. Researchers report that Native Americans began cultivating these as early as 3500 B.C. and ate the fruit and seeds. They also used dried pieces of rind and fruit to weave utilitarian items such as mats. Pumpkins played an important role in indigenous farming practices, as well. Well before Europeans came to the Americas, native peoples employed the “Three Sisters” method, which is a sustainable practice that promotes long-term soil health and increased yield through companion planting with corns, beans, and pumpkins. Each “sister” had an important job in this trio: corn providing a natural trellis for the beans to climb, beans fixing nitrogen in the soil to increase future soil fertility and providing support to the corn, and pumpkin and squash vines providing a living green mulch for the corn and beans slowing water evaporation and suppressing weed competition.

Two planting diagrams of Native American “Three Sisters” planting technique. (Image credit: Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cornell Garden-Based Learning)

This October, as you are shopping for that perfect pumpkin, remember that you might be buying a hot new variety that has emerged from highly technical breeding and research while at the same time also honoring one of our most traditional native crops.




Resources and Additional Information

To go into depth on the research of new pumpkin cultigens, visit North Carolina State University’s 2019 website for variety trials.

For more information on how to grow your own pumpkins and winter squash, Clemson University’s Home and Garden Information Center offers a comprehensive online factsheet.

Explore the history of the pumpkin with University of Missouri’s site and learn about the legendary tale that inspired jack o’ lantern, pumpkin facts, and more about pumpkin growing in your home garden. (Note: Some sources, such as this one, list the C. maxima not the C. pepo as the most well-known orange pumpkin.)

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