Whether for jack-o’-lanterns or pie,
’tis the season for curcubits

By Ross Howell

As crisp October evenings arrive, no doubt your mind turns to thoughts of the plant family Cucurbitaceae. Don’t think so?

Pumpkins are “cucurbits”relatives of squash, zucchini, edible and inedible gourds, watermelons, honeydews, cucumbers and more.

Exfoliate this morning with a loofah? Yep. Made from a relative of that jack-o’-lantern decorating your front steps.

The cucurbits are a fantastically big family, counting about 965 species. And you thought your spouse had a lot of cousins! These cucurbits produce a large portion of the food eaten by human beings. Yet in spite of their prolific diversity, almost all cucurbits produce the signature yellow blossoms we associate with squash and cucumbers.

And those blossoms? They may disturb your assumptions deeply. Pumpkins aren’t vegetables, as you might think. They’re fruits.

Individual pumpkin vines produce both male and female flowers and are highly dependent on honeybees for successful pollination. Pumpkins are a very generous foodstuff for people. Their blossoms, seeds, and flesh are tasty and nutritious.

Pumpkins, like other squash, are thought to have originated in North America, and they’ve been around for a long time. The oldest evidence of their presence on this continent was discovered in Mexico — seeds estimated to date from 5500 to 7000 B.C.

The French explorer Jacques Cartier reported finding “gros melons” during his exploration of the St. Lawrence region of North America in the 16th century. Subsequently translated into English as “pompions,” the name has since evolved into the modern “pumpkin,” or commonly here in the South, “punkin.”

The most common decorative pumpkin is the Connecticut Field variety, an heirloom plant said to be very similar to the squash grown by Native Americans before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Each fall we see its familiar orange color and smooth, slightly ribbed skin at most every commercial pumpkin patch or church fundraiser. A typical Connecticut Field pumpkin weighs between 15 and 25 pounds.

But there are more than thirty pumpkin varieties these days, some deep green, some variegated and others pearlescent white, with skins smooth skin to rough. And as for size, well, they can be a small fruit less than a pound in weight to the size of the behemoth presented by Chris Stevens at the Stillwater, Minnesota, Harvest Fest in October 2010. It weighed 1,810 pounds, 8 ounces!

The Harvest Fest pumpkin may be what little Linus van Pelt of Charles Shulz’s  Peanuts cartoon envisioned when he proclaimed — unsuccessfully — to Charlie Brown and all the neighborhood kids, “On Halloween night the Great Pumpkin rises out of his pumpkin patch and flies through the air with bags of toys for all the children.”

For a plant so generous and benign, the pumpkin is treated pretty badly by us humans.

At Halloween we’ll discard its innards and carve the pumpkin into all sorts of fanciful visages and shapes, some beautiful, some frightening. Historians ascribe this tradition to Irish immigrants, who before coming to America, performed these rites for centuries on turnips and potatoes.

Or musicians from Chicago in the 1980s will name their alternative rock band The Smashing Pumpkins and release some pretty cool songs along with a selection of completely baffling MTV videos.

Or worse, some of us with a mechanical bent will form teams to build elaborate catapults or air cannons that at “Punkin Chunkin’” competitions launch the hapless fruits thousands of feet, smashing them to smithereens. In fact, North Carolina is home to a world champion Punkin Chunkin’ team.

Anybody for Thanksgiving pumpkin pie?  OH

Attempts by Ross Howell Jr. to grow squash or pumpkins in his backyard garden have been foiled by rude and invidious squash bugs. He refuses to accept defeat.

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