A popular holiday food and decoration, pumpkins took their place on food lists thousands of years ago. Historically rooted to a wild gourd in Mexico, the breeding and domesticating of the fruit yielded a variety of types of pumpkins. Although commonly thought of as the Halloween jack-o-lantern today, the first mention of pumpkin carving wasn't until the 1800's in North America. Surprisingly to many, the pumpkins carved for the night of ghosts and goblins and the best ones for baking pies are two different types.
The Cucurbita moschata family produces the fruit that becomes part of the Thanksgiving meal as pumpkin pie. Fruit canneries choose the cheese pumpkin for commercial sales. Pumpkin vines in this family yield tan-skinned produce, oblong in shape rather than oval. Cheese pumpkins weigh between 6 and 12 lbs. and have a sweet orange flesh. You may hear cheese pumpkin called moschata squash, a combination of the scientific name and its membership in the winter squash family.
Pumpkins found in the Cucurbita maxima group have a reddish-orange skin. If you grow the fruit from this family, you may produce pumpkins weighing more than 100 lbs. Nearly round giant pumpkins commonly range from 25 lbs. upwards, with growers of the largest varieties competing for prizes at county fairs each year. The largest Cucurbita maxima fruit recorded exceeded 1,500 lbs. Growers of giant pumpkins hand-pollinate the flowers for the best results and largest produce. Cross-fertilization with other members of the family, including squash, results in different pumpkin varieties.
The type of pumpkin known as Cucurbita mixta includes ornamental miniature pumpkins often used as table decorations during fall holidays. The pie-filling Cushaw pumpkin, also called Cushaw squash, falls into this group. Cucurbita mixta pumpkins move away from the most familiar orange-skinned rind, with this group including less common skin colors of blue or blue-green. White rind pumpkins as well as hull-less and seedless varieties belong to this family. Cucurbita mixta pumpkins include egg and spherical shapes and may have warty rinds.
The pumpkins most people recognize come from the Cucurbita pepo group. The bright orange-skinned fruit carved as jack-o-lanterns or decorated for the Thanksgiving season shares family ties with gourds, pattypan squash and zucchini. If you plan to use the seeds from your Cucurbita pepo pumpkins for replanting, you should isolate them from the moschata type because they will cross-pollinate. However, you may grow them side-by-side with the maxima type because these two do not cross. The Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine mentions eating the seeds of Cucurbita pepo pumpkins as a possible means of killing and expelling worms.
- The University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension; Pumpkin, Squash or Gourd?; Heather Bryant
- Local Harvest: Pumpkin Seeds - Tan Cheese
- Long Island Seed Project: Cucurbita moschata, "Long Island Cheese"
- Master Gardener Newsletter; Everything You Wanted to Know About Pumpkins ... and More; Oct. 2009
- Plant Palette; Giant Pumpkins; Jennifer Schultz Nelson; Oct. 2006
- Photo Credit Hemera Technologies/Photos.com/Getty Images
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