October – Pumpkins!
Because it’s Halloween this month, I thought I’d celebrate the pumpkin! I think in the UK, it is a very under-rated vegetable which we should do more with than just carving scary faces in them!
Pumpkins are actually squash and belong to the same family as the butternut squash! In North America and the UK, a pumpkin is a squash that is orange and round and if it is not orange and round then it is a winter squash. However, the terms are used interchangeably as in Australia, the name pumpkin is used for all winter squash no matter there shape or colour.
A short history of pumpkins
Pumpkins are thought to originate in the Americas with the oldest evidence of pumpkin seeds being found in Mexico from between 7000-5500BC and have continued to be cultivated in North America ever since. It is generally accepted that pumpkins were given to English colonists who had arrived in the ‘New World’ by Native Americans. The pumpkin’s ability to store well over winter is what made them a staple crop especially in the hard winters.
And we can’t have a history of pumpkins without the story of the jack o’lantern. The practice of making jack-o-lanterns came from an Irish myth.
” According to the story, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy their drinks. Once the Devil did so, Jack decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul. The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down until the Devil promised Jack not to bother him for ten more years.
Soon after, Jack died. God would not allow such an unsavory figure into heaven. The Devil, upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with it ever since.” Source: https://extension.illinois.edu/pumpkins/history.cfm
This figure was referred to as “Jack of the lantern” and originally turnips, large beets and potatoes were used to carve scary faces, placing them in windows to ward away wandering evil spirits. Immigrants in the United States started using pumpkins to make Jack-o-lanterns. As pumpkins are synonymous with the autumn season and easier to carve, it wasn’t long before jack-o-lanterns became part of the Halloween celebrations.
Why should we eat pumpkins?
Pumpkin is a low calorie vegetable offering only 26 calories per 100g. This makes it an excellent substitute for potatoes in calorie controlled diets. It also has no saturated fats or cholesterol. Pumpkins are also an excellent source of vitamins including vitamins A, C and E. In fact it can give you 246% of your RDA in a 100g serving. Vitamin A is extremely important for eyesight and the immune system and vitamin A deficiency causes devastating effects with 1 in 5 children thought to be vitamin A deficient worldwide!
Pumpkin seeds are a great source of fibre and mono-unsaturated fatty acids which are good for bowel and heart health!
How to grow pumpkins
Pumpkins are a tender plant which can be killed by frosts. They have a creeping vine habit so need plenty of room to grow and sprawl.
Pumpkin seeds can be sown indoors from mid March – May. Seeds should be sown 2 per station into a pot of compost, with the seeds placed on their sides to allow water to run off them. If seeds are planted flat they can end up rotting. Pumpkins need warmth when germinating so place in a propagator or place a polythene bag around the pot. Seedlings should germinate in 5-7 days.
Grow pumpkins on for about 4 weeks before transplanting them outside in mid-late may after the risk of frosts have passed. For some regions, this may mean you can’t plant out until June! Gradually accustom young plants to outside conditions by using a cold frame.
If you want to sow pumpkin seeds direct, you should sow from mid-late May when the soil has warmed and all risk of frosts have passed. Pumpkins are hungry greedy plants and require nutritious soil which will have had a good does of well-rotted manure or compost worked into the soil before planting or sowing. Plant pumpkin plants in a sunny site that ideally gets 6 hrs of sunlight a day and plant your plants at least 3ft apart. Plant each pumpkin plant on top of a mound to ensure good drainage and keep them well watered until they are established.
Feed pumpkins with a general fertilizer regularly and water well in dry periods.Flowers on pumpkins are either male or female with the female flower having an embryonic fruit behind it. Flowers are normally insect pollinated but if you notice that fruit is not setting then hand pollinate. If you want very large pumpkins then you should limit the number of fruit that set to no more than 3.
Pumpkins will at first be green until they have reached their final size then the fruit will start to ripen and the skin will turn orange. If necessary place the fruit on a bit of cardboard or straw to protect the fruit from contact with wet soil. Pumpkins should be left for as long as possible in the sun for the skin to cure and ripen and should only be cut off the plant and brought indoors if there is a risk of frost. Pumpkins should then be placed on a sunny windowsill or in a greenhouse to allow their skins to cure. Curing of the skins allows the pumpkin to store for 3-4 months.
The two main problems seen with pumpkins is powdery mildew and fruit not setting. Powdery mildew are a group of fungus which is seen as a white powdery coating on the leaves of plants. This is often seen in plants that are water stressed and therefore more prone to infection. To avoid powdery mildew, keep the water around the plant moist. Fruit not setting is often related to cooler temperatures and lower insect activity. If cool temperatures are a problem then you may need to hand pollinate your plants.
How to cook pumpkin
Pumpkin can be roasted or boiled and can be used in numerous recipes from soups and pies to stews and curries. You can even use a hollowed out pumpkin as a cooking bowl. To roast pumpkin, cut into pieces and lay on an oven tray. Spray with cooking spray and sprinkle with salt. Roast in the oven for 30-40mins at 200C until the pumpkin is soft.