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Plain facts about pumpkins

October 31, 2006|by JEFF SEMLER

As you read this article, you may be preparing for trick-or-treaters or just a quiet night at home. Halloween marks the high tide of worth of pumpkins. Yes, thousands of pies will be consumed during Thanksgiving and Christmas but as far as decorations go, Halloween is the high point.

So what of our favorite orange fall fruit? The name pumpkin originated from the Greek word for "large melon," which is "pepon." "Pepon" was nasalized by the French into "pompon." The English changed "pompon" to "Pumpion." Shakespeare referred to the "pumpion" in his "Merry Wives of Windsor." American colonists changed "pumpion" into "pumpkin." The "pumpkin" is referred to in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," "Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater" and "Cinderella."

Native Americans dried strips of pumpkin and wove them into mats. They also roasted long strips of pumpkin on the open fire and ate them. The origin of pumpkin pie occurred when the colonists sliced off the pumpkin top, removed the seeds, and filled the insides with milk, spices and honey. The pumpkin was then baked in hot ashes.

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But what is this pumpkin? Pumpkins, squash and gourds are members of the vine crops called "cucurbits." The name is derived from their botanical genus classification of Cucurbita. And it is all in what you call it. Varieties of each of the four species, mentioned above are popularly called "pumpkins," and varieties of each are called "squash," more by tradition than by system. In fact, orange color sometimes helps determine what is a pumpkin.

Pumpkins are a warm-season vine crop that can be grown throughout much of the United States. Besides being used as jack-o'-lanterns at Halloween, pumpkins are used to make pumpkin butter, pies, custard, bread, cookies and soup.

The pumpkin, like the tomato, is often called a vegetable - but is it? In the truest sense it is a fruit because a fruit is the ripened ovary - together with seeds - of a flowering plant. In many species, the fruit incorporates the ripened ovary and surrounding tissues as with the pumpkin. Fruits are the means by which flowering plants disseminate seeds.

Another interesting thing about pumpkins is they have both male and female flowers. That is why the first flowers of the pumpkin do not set fruit. They are the male flowers that attract the bees, usually bumblebees. The next wave of flowers are both male and female and the bees deposit the pollen in the female flowers and the fruit begins to grow.

While it may seem a little early, you can plan to grow your own pumpkins. Curl up with a seed catalog this winter by the fire and look for a variety you would like. Varieties range in size from 2 to 25 pounds. The usual days to maturity is 110 days but do not get in a hurry, the seeds do not germinate in cold soil, and the seedlings are injured by frost. Do not plant until all danger of frost has passed, and the soil has thoroughly warmed. Plant pumpkins for Halloween in late May, if pumpkins are planted too early, they may soften and rot before Halloween.

In closing, I will leave you with some pumpkin facts:

· Pumpkin seeds can be roasted as a snack.

· Pumpkins contain potassium and Vitamin A.

· Pumpkins are used for feed for animals.

· Pumpkin flowers are edible.

· Pumpkins are 90 percent water.

· Eighty percent of the pumpkin supply in the United States is available in October.

Now you probably know more about pumpkins than you ever wanted to know, but you can buy one tomorrow at a discount. They still make good Thanksgiving decorations and pies.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at jsemler@umd.edu

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