Right in Our Backyard
There’s a Lot More to Pumpkins Than Meets the Eye
By Bill Lawyer
This time of year, you can’t get away from those orange head-shaped fruits that adorn porches, lawns, windowsills, and column posts. Some are just displayed unadorned. Others are painted, carved, covered by clothing, and anything else creative people can think of.
In a good weather year, 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins are produced annually in the U.S., with Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California the top-producers.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, over $575 million will be spent on Jack-o’-lanterns this fall. Many of those pumpkins will be carved, cooked, and the fleshy part eaten.
Pumpkins’ genetic and natural history evolution enabled them to become a big part of our country’s food output.
Archeologists have found signs of pumpkin-like plants as far back as 11,000 years ago. Using modern genome testing, we know that the original pumpkin-like plant split off into a variety of the ancestors of today’s squash, cucumbers, and watermelon.
Pumpkins are among a group of plants (some call them vegetables, others fruit) that are grouped with a variety of gourds and squashes. These plants were all vines, not trees or shrubs.
One of the reasons pumpkins, like many vine plants, have great climbing ability is owing to thigmotropism, a directional growth movement which occurs as a mechano-sensory response to a touch stimulus.
Over the centuries, farmers have worked to increase the size and quality of pumpkins’ pulp. Most of this has been done by selective breeding, similar to how farmers have increased cow milk productivity or chicken tenderness.
In the case of pumpkins, enlarging their size provided a mixed blessing. Pumpkins evolved to have sturdy twining vines that enabled the plants to get more sunlight by climbing up higher than other plants. Their small but strong tendrils ingeniously wrap themselves to attach the segments of the vines where the leaves and fruits came together, for leverage.
The end result of this husbandry is pumpkins that are way too heavy to climb, so they are grown on level fields and spread out, so they all receive proper levels of sun, rain, and nutrients.
Pumpkins are not just there for the picking, they’re good for the eating. They provide a variety of vitamins, help with weight loss, improve vision, and decrease the risk of some cancers.
One more important thing to know about pumpkins is that they have male and female flowers, which means they need pollinators. Fortunately, because pumpkins are native to America, there are many native species of insects that are excellent at this task.
But, to get the high yields of pumpkins that people want, farmers have become dependent on native honeybees, which are transported along the East Coast from field to field.
With pumpkins appearing in large quantities as the October days go by, they are one of the best treats of the season, right in our backyard.