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A Merry Gardener

Horticulture for daily living

Pumpkin Time

The joy and festivity of autumn holds a special place in my heart. Judging by the decorative displays on front porches everywhere I go, and the flood of seasonal social media hashtags [#fallfavorites #pumpkinspice #pumpkintime], I believe that I am not alone.

The central player in all things fall is the pumpkin, so to celebrate the spirit of the season, today's blog post will focus on some fun pumpkin facts.

Illinois is the number one pumpkin-producing state in the U.S., beating out the other top fifteen states by growing 2-4 times as many acres of pumpkins. In 2016, 17,400 acres of pumpkins were harvested in Illinois, producing a crop worth $52.4 million.

Pumpkins are part of the plant family Cucurbitaceae, along with squash, cucumbers, melons, and gourds. There are a few species of pumpkins that we grow today for various purposes, including Cucurbita maxima, Cucurbita moschata, and Curcurbita pepo. The botanical name Cucurbita pepo literally means squash melon—not exactly creative, but certainly accurate. What's interesting is that acorn squash, zucchini, yellow squash, and some pumpkins are all varieties of the same species, C. pepo.

Pumpkins are native to the Americas, and are one of the oldest crops in the western hemisphere. Archeologists have identified cucurbit seeds in 12,000-year-old mastodon dung, suggesting that these and other prehistoric megafauna played an important role in the lifecycle of wild pumpkin ancestors. A recent study of archeological and modern DNA samples from wild and domesticated Cucurbita species suggests that humans may have domesticated cucurbits six different times in six different places.

However it happened, pumpkins became an important crop for food and fun. Pumpkin is a nutritious vegetable packed with beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A. Native Americans roasted long strips of pumpkin over open fire, slow-cooked them for stews, and dried thin slices to preserve for longer storage. Records from the European colonists indicate that they were quick to incorporate pumpkin into their diet. One of the most amusing colonial records is a quirky poem from the 1630s.

Stead of pottage and puddings and custards and pies
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies,
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,
If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon.

If Barley be wanting to make into Malt,
We must be contented and think it no Fault
For we can make liquor to sweeten our Lips
Of Pumpkins and Parsnips and Walnut-Tree Chips.

Sorry to the hipsters. Pumpkin beer was cool in the 17th century.

Tune in tomorrow for more pumpkin fun, Halloween edition.

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