As I was eyeing a heap of pumpkins at a garden center the other day, a thought came to me that pumpkins are the puppies of the plant world. Think about it: there’s something about pumpkins that makes us happy when we look at them; and if we get up close to these squash it’s hard to not want to take one home with us.
Like dogs, there’s probably even a pumpkin to suit every preference, all the way from diminutive Jack-be-Littles (Chihuahuas and toy breeds) to 1,000-pounds-plus giants (English mastiffs and Newfoundlands).
It’s not just pumpkins’ bright, cheerful, orange that calls to us. I think it’s somehow wrapped up in the fall season. I mean, if these fruits ripened in June or July, I have a hard time imagining that we’d be so taken with them. Perhaps they speak to something seasonally primal in us. Those big, orange globes in the garden or on nursery shelves tell us that the months of working and striving — plowing, sowing, weeding, watering, picking, and preserving — are over. Larders are stocked with food. Now, it’s time to relax and enjoy the fruits of our labors.
Pumpkins are also tied up in folklore, from the Irish legend of the Jack-o-Lantern to “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” by Washington Irving, and of course to the spooky celebration of Halloween itself.
Puppies and folklore aside, there’s the practical aspect of pumpkins, which is that pumpkin pie is even more American than apple pie; squash being native to the Americas, while apples originated in Asia. And it’s hard to imagine a Thanksgiving celebration without the iconic squash dessert.
Even though pumpkin products are more seasonally-specific, they represent a sizable chunk of the agricultural market. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, over 90,000 acres of pumpkins were grown in the U.S. in 2014, producing 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins.
Illinois is the top pumpkin-producing state, “producing more than the other five leading states combined, and about half of the national total.” (Pennsylvania ranks fifth among the top six pumpkin-producing states.) “The average pumpkin yield per acre among the top six states was 22, 083 pounds, and range from 14,500 to 37,500 pounds.”
What goes into a can of Libby’s pumpkin puree? The most common variety is “Dickinson” (Cucurbita moschata spp.), a tan-colored, elongated pumpkin that can grow to about forty pounds. The flesh is orange, sweet, and makes for good eating. In our area, the Pennsylvania Dutch Crookneck is still favored for pies and other cooking. The flesh is “superb, being deep orange and richly flavored.” It’s described as excellent for pies, butters, and other desserts. (Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalogue)
While miniature pumpkins are adorable and make delightful table centerpieces and decorations, humans seem to have a fascination for Really Big Things and pumpkins lend themselves well to the challenge. The world record for the largest pumpkin was set in 2014 by Beni Meier, of Germany. The squash tipped (flattened?) the scales at 2323.7 pounds. I don’t know how you get something that large to the weighing site! And, to be honest, at that size a pumpkin has lost its puppy cuteness, looking more like Jabba the Hutt from “Star Wars.”
If you’d like to see what a pumpkin that size looks like, go to http://www.gardenersnet.com/vegetable/giantpumpkins.htm. At that website you’ll also find tips on how to grow a giant pumpkin. A search for “giant pumpkin seeds” will bring up plenty of results on seeds to get you started. Just make sure you have room for these big guys before you put a seed in the ground and are prepared to give them extraordinary care.
Pam Baxter is an avid organic vegetable gardener who lives in Kimberton. Direct e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send mail to P.O. Box 80, Kimberton, PA 19442. Join the conversation at “Chester County Roots,” a Facebook page for gardeners in the Delaware Valley. Go to Facebook, search for Chester County Roots, and “like” the page. To receive notice of updates, click or hover on “Liked” to set your preferences.