Maybe it’s their cheerful orange color or their round, sort of huggable shape, but people love pumpkins. And this is the time of year when pumpkins really come into their own. In mid-October we’re eating them in pies, and by the end we’re carving them into jack-o-lanterns.

All the fruits we call pumpkins belong to the same family, Cucurbitaceae (the gourd family, which also includes watermelons, cucumbers and cantaloupes) and they all belong to the same genus, Cucurbita, but they come from four different species: Cucurbita maxima, Cucurbita mixta, Cucurbita moschata, and Cucurbita pepo. And to make it more confusing, the same species that produces the pumpkins we usually eat, C. pepo, also produces acorn squash and zucchinis!

In fact, we’ve spread the name “pumpkin” around so much that you can’t even say all pumpkins are orange: the Queensland pumpkin from Australia (a variety of C. maxima) is blue, the big cheese pumpkin, grown in the deep South (C. moschata) is tan, and the Cushaw pumpkin, grown in the U.S. Southwest (C. mixta) is green-striped.

Size is even more variable, ranging from miniature pumpkins that would fit in your hand to giant pumpkins that, carefully tended by highly competitive gardeners vying for big cash prices, have now topped the 1,000-pound mark.

So about the only way to define a pumpkin is to say that it’s a gourd that looks like what we think a pumpkin ought to look like. (The giant-pumpkin competitions acknowledge this. A seed from a giant pumpkin may give you an orange fruit or a green fruit. If it’s green, it doesn’t matter how big it gets–it’s not a pumpkin, it’s a squash. Since it doesn’t look like a pumpkin, by the rules of pumpkin competition, it isn’t one.)

Pumpkins, squashes and other gourds are among the most useful plants known to humans. Their pulp, seeds and flowers are all edible and nutritious, and their dried rinds can be used as containers. Pumpkin pulp can be transformed into pickles, pies, puddings, breads, soups, pancakes–even beer. (A natural Halloween promotion for a brew pub, one would think.)

North American Indians created the pumpkin by selectively breeding various varieties of squash to produce better taste and more fruit, probably around 5,000 B.C. Millennia later, when the first European settlers arrived, pumpkins quickly become a staple part of their diet. They learned to dry pumpkins, bake pumpkins, and make pumpkin stew. When they were short of fodder, they even fed pumpkins to their livestock.

English settlers called this useful fruit “pompions,” an old-fashioned English word for melon. “Pompion” (derived from the Greek “pepon,” meaning “cooked by the sun,”) evolved into “pumpkin,” then returned to Europe as a brand-new word.

The custom of carving jack-o-lanterns arrived in North America with the wave of Irish immigrants in the 1840s. The Irish had a tradition of creating a “neep-lantern,” a turnip with a face carved on it, for All Hallow’s Eve. Anthropologists speculate the tradition dates back to ancient Celtic fire rituals marking the turning of the year (Halloween was Celtic New Year’s), but folklore says the custom began with a mean, stingy, clever man named Jack. Jack tricked the Devil into agreeing never to take Jack’s soul. When Jack died, he wasn’t allowed into heaven, but because of their agreement, the Devil wouldn’t let him into hell, either, and sent him back where he came from–first tossing him a burning coal from the fires of hell to light his way. Jack put the coal in a hollowed-out turnip to make a lantern, and is said to still be wandering the Earth today.

A shortage of turnips in North America and the fact pumpkins are easier to carve meant the “neep-lantern” soon became today’s “jack-o-lantern.”

Why carve a face on it? Well, there was a time when people genuinely believed that spirits and ghosts left the grave on Halloween to seek out their previous homes. To prevent unwanted visitations, villagers left treats at their door to appease the spirits, while dressing up in costumes and carving hideous faces on their neep-lanterns to scare them away.

So the pumpkin, associated with Thanksgiving because it tastes good, became associated with Halloween because it could be easily carved–making October a month when pumpkins are everywhere.

One last note: research by Chicago scientist Alan Hirsch indicates that no aroma sexually arouses men more than a combination of lavender and pumpkin pie.

Maybe that’s the real reason people love pumpkins!

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/1997/10/pumpkins/

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