Pumpkins are usually orange but can be yellow, white, green or red and vary in size, shape, texture and taste.
The name pumpkin comes from the Greek word ‘pepon’, meaning ‘large melon’.
Pumpkins, squashes, and gourds all belong to the same family Cucurbita. Scientifically speaking, pumpkins and squashes are a fruit (they contain seeds) but when it comes to cooking, they are often referred to as vegetables. Pumpkins can be baked, boiled, steamed, roasted or used in soups.
A pumpkin is actually a type of squash, and there are many other varieties of squash too. Each type has a different name – Acorn, Butternut, Delicata, Carnival, Crown Prince, Gem, Red Kuri, Little Jack are just some of them.
Pumpkins are low in fat and sodium and high in fibre. They contain sources of Vitamin A, Vitamin B, potassium, protein, and iron.
Pumpkin plants feature both male and female flowers, with bees typically being involved in pollination (the transfer of pollen).
In 1584, French explorer Jacques Cartier explored the St. Lawrence region of North America, he reported finding “gros melons.” Pumpkins are thought to have been grown in the region for approximately 6000 years with evidence of growing and cooking pumpkins having being found in South, Central and North America.
The wild ancestors were approximately one-fifth of current size, bitter, encased in tough rinds and unpalatable. The bitterness was due to the presence of a natural defence chemical called Cucurbitacin which was lethal to small animals whereas larger animals could metabolize this chemical. The Cucurbita were dependent on larger animals such as mammoths to break and disperse the seeds. Theoretically when they became extinct so should have the Cucurbita but they avoided extinction by forming a new partnership with humans. Humans domesticated Cucurbita and bred them to be bigger and more palatable.
Why are pumpkins orange in colour?
Pumpkins like sweet potatoes, carrots and cantaloupe melons contain the pigment carotene which gives it the characteristic orange colouration. Pumpkins start as being green in colour and as they ripen (like strawberries and tomatoes) and change colour to become orange. This could be regarded as an evolutionary advantage as they are more visible to animals who can consume them and aid in seed dispersal.
The history of carving pumpkins can be traced back to Celtic traditions in Ireland. As pumpkins did not exist in Ireland ancient Celts carved turnips and beetroots on ‘All Hallows Eve’ and placed an ember or candle inside to ward off evil spirits.
Irish migration in the 19th century transferred this tradition to the United States of America and the locally grown pumpkins were used to create Jack O’Lanterns
In 2016 German grower Mathias Willemijn set a new world record for the heaviest pumpkin grown at 2624.6 pounds which is 1190kg, the weight of a mid-sized family car.
These pumpkins grown locally to the Museum in Walworth Gardens this year (photo taken in September 2020), aren’t quite that big, but impressive all the same.
Collated by Samia Qureshi, Science Learning Officer