As October approaches and the weather in the north turns cooler, classic images of autumn reflect the tones of red, yellow and brown found in the natural landscape. Colorful swirls of falling leaves, bushels of crisp apples, and especially cheerful, orange pumpkins come to mind when we think about fall. The pumpkin is a member of the Cucurbitaceae or cucurbit family of plants, which also includes squashes, cucumbers, gourds, and melons. According to the University of Illinois Extension website, "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'."
Although the origin of the pumpkin is not exactly known, it is generally believed to have originated in the Americas. Seeds of pumpkin-like plants were found in Mexican archaeological sites dating between 7000 and 5500 B.C.. These early pumpkins were not the typical round, orange types we commonly see today; they were a crooked-neck variety and were grown with beans and sunflowers along river banks. After corn (maize) began to be cultivated, Native Americans learned that pumpkins and other squashes grew very well in the same plot as corn and beans in what is referred to as "The Three Sisters" tradition. "Corn serves as the natural trellis for the beans to grow on. The beans roots set nitrogen in the soil to nourish the corn. The bean vines help to stabilize the corn stalks on windy days. The squash plants shelter the shallow roots of the corn and shade the ground to discourage weeds and preserve moisture. Truly a symbiotic relationship." (All About Pumpkins, http://www.allaboutpumpkins.com/history.html).
Besides classic orange, pumpkins come in a surprising array of colors including varying shades of green, red, and white. There is even a "blue" type often referred to as the Australian Blue Pumpkin, which looks like a Turban squash. (Pumpkin Nook, http://www.pumpkinnook.com/facts/colors.htm) Pumpkins are grown all over the world now. It is one of the most popular crops grown in the United States, with over 1.5 billion pounds produced each year. (Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pumpkin)
by Maddy & Me Designs
Fall Pumpkins Nightlight
by Designs by Christine
Fall Pumpkins Nightlight
by Designs by Christine
Since it stored well and had many uses, the pumpkin was an important food source for early cultures in the Americas. The flesh was roasted, baked, parched, boiled and dried. The blossoms and seeds were also edible. Flour was made from dried, ground pumpkin. The dehydrated, hard shells could be used as bowls and storage containers, and strips of dried pumpkin flesh could be woven into mats. Native Americans introduced the pumpkin to the Pilgrims who created the ancestor of the pumpkin pie, sans crust: "The Pilgrims cut the top off of a pumpkin, scooped the seeds out, and filled the cavity with cream, honey, eggs and spices. They placed the top back on and carefully buried it in the hot ashes of a cooking fire. When finished cooking, they lifted this blackened item from the earth with no pastry shell whatsoever. They scooped the contents out along with the cooked flesh of the shell like a custard." (All About Pumpkins, http://www.allaboutpumpkins.com/history.html) The Pilgrims also fermented persimmons, hops, maple sugar and pumpkin to make a beer.
Of course, what would Halloween be without the pumpkin Jack-o'-lantern? The tradition of carving vegetables for lanterns originated in Britain and Ireland, and immigrants in the Americas soon found the hollowed pumpkin made an excellent lantern. However, it wasn't until the mid 19th century that the term Jack-o-lantern came into widespread use, and the carved pumpkin became associated with Halloween. Prior to that time, the pumpkin was a symbol of harvest time and abundance. Even today, many fall festivals include pumpkin-themed events, like contests to determine the biggest locally-grown pumpkin, and pumpkin-chucking tournaments, during which creative catapult contraptions are used to see who can fling a pumpkin the farthest.
The sweet and aromatic scent of pumpkin pie stirs feelings of comfort and home-cooking, and memories of family gatherings, like Thanksgiving. The bright orange fruit makes an excellent addition to quick breads and muffins, but it can also make delightful, creamy winter soups. While the most common way to use pumpkin in cooking is to buy canned puree, you might want to try preparing your pumpkin mash from scratch. The website All About Pumpkins has instructions for cutting and cooking a fresh pumpkin, as well as recipes for enjoying this versatile winter squash. http://www.allaboutpumpkins.com/recipes.html And don't forget to save and roast your pumpkin seeds! Also known as pepitas, pumpkin seeds are tasty sources of many vitamins and trace minerals. The purported health benefits of eating pumpkin seeds range from lowering cholesterol to having anti-inflammatory and anti-fungal properties.
Whether you decide to eat your pumpkin or just enjoy it as part of nature's beautiful fall decor, be sure to experience the many-faceted pumpkin this season.
by In A Lather