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From food source to Jack-O’-Lanterns, the history behind autumn’s unique fruit

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What fall décor is complete without the famed frontpiece, smooth or lumpy, tall or squat; a bright orange pumpkin to complement nature’s fall color scheme.

Pumpkins hold a unique place in the hearts, minds and stomachs of Americans; and they should, considering they are one of the oldest cultivars native to North America. The first evidence of cultivated pumpkins dates back at least 10,000 years ago to the Eastern regions of Mexico. The first pumpkin varieties were small, hard and very bitter and grown mostly for their flesh. Over time people throughout North, Central and South America have depended upon pumpkins and their squash cousins for many purposes, which has intentionally or unintentionally generated large variation in pumpkin palatability, shape, seed number, shell thickness and size. There are many varieties of pumpkins and different types arose independently in different regions of the Americas depending on regional uses.

In most cases, pumpkins were raised for food. They are one of few fruits that are prized for both their edible flesh and seeds. In addition to making delicious savory side dishes, soups and desserts, pumpkins have some unique nutritional and medicinal properties. Pumpkins contain high amounts of carotenoids which are found in most orange fruits and vegetables. Healthy doses of alpha and beta carotenes help moderate the onset of cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. Pumpkins are also low calorie but high in fiber and potassium making them a great choice for any heart healthy diet. And they are one of the best natural sources for magnesium, a mineral commonly underrepresented in our diets. Magnesium is especially useful in regulating blood sugar, making pumpkin and pumpkin seeds a great natural food option for those fighting type 2 diabetes.

Hobbyists around the world compete annually to grow the largest pumpkin. Giant pumpkins are a breed of their own and their seeds can sell for hundreds of dollars per seed. It is common for giant growers to achieve 100-200 lb pumpkins but anything over 500 lbs is a huge achievement. The 2016 record pumpkin weighed in at 2,625 lb and came from Belgium. It held the record for 5 years until Italy reported a 2,708 lb pumpkin which is the new record for the largest pumpkin ever recorded. Giant pumpkins are a pride of any fall display but one of the most creative uses of these monsters that I have heard of are in giant pumpkin boat races. People travel with their more than 500 lb pumpkins to select locations to compete in paddling their carved out pumpkin boats across a lake. Good thing pumpkins float naturally!

The use of pumpkins as Jack-O-Lanterns is also North American in origin and represents the cultural integration inherent in so many modern traditions. Debate exists on the origin of the phrase Jack-O-Lantern. Some suggest it links to the description of marsh lights called the ‘Wisp of the Willows’ or to long held traditions of lit faces chasing away bad spirits. The strongest claim lies with an Irish myth about ‘Stingy Jack’ who twice tricked the Devil out of taking claim to his soul. In death, Jack was punished for his crossings with the Devil to roam the earth with nothing but a lump of burning coal housed in a carved-out turnip to light his way. This gave rise to the phrase Jack of the Lantern or Jack-O-Lantern. People throughout Ireland, Scotland, and England would carve faces into turnips, potatoes, and beets and put them in windows to keep out wandering evil spirits like Jack. Pumpkins, cultivated by the many native residents of the Americas, provided an ideal canvas for immigrants from these regions to carry on their tradition.

So, this Halloween, enjoy our shared long history with the pumpkin as you pull out your carving tools and don’t forget to bake up a batch of seeds!

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Gretchen Gerrish works for UW-Madison's Trout Lake Station through the Center for Limnology. She studies how evolutionary and ecological processes interact to allow natural systems to deal with change over time.