What You Didn’t Know About Pumpkins

Pumpkin image by Kristin Molinaro

There are many nice things about living in coastal California, but all of them come with trade-offs. One of those trade-offs? We don’t have an “autumn” here. Not really. We only get two seasons a year: wet and dry. The only reason leaves turn brown and fall off around here is because the drought is killing thirsty plants.

That’s why it’s nice to see some ceremonial signs of fall in the decorations people put up for their houses or businesses. The easiest and most common of these, of course, is a decorative pumpkin. Between the jack-o’-lanterns of Halloween, the pumpkin pies of Thanksgiving, and the Pumpkin Spice Lattes of Starbucks, we Americans have made fall “the season of the pumpkin”. Since I’m feeling festive this week, I think it’s time to examine our favorite winter squash a bit more closely and see what unusual facts I can find.

The name “pumpkin” is actually Greek

My Big Fat Greek Wedding screenshot from In Every Movie

“I told you every word was Greek!”

Wait… that doesn’t make sense. Pumpkins are indigenous to North America. They were domesticated in Mexico more than 7,000 years ago. Surely, they would have a name based on some Native American word, right?

The word “squash” clearly has Indian roots. The Massachuset Indians referred to the family of vegetables as askutasquash. However, early European explorers did not adopt the Indian name for this particular large, orange member of the squash family. Instead, French explorers who visited North America and encountered this unusual round squash thought it looked like a “large melon”. The French called them “pompons”. This French word has a Greek root: “Pepon”, which means “a large melon”.

So a Greek word for melons became a French word that was misapplied to a squash, and that French word was picked up by the English as “pumpion” because of course the English couldn’t be bothered to pronounce things correctly. Eventually, “pumpion” evolved into “pumpkin”.

Pumpkin Spice Lattes don’t contain any actual pumpkin

Pumpkin Spice Latte image from Neatorama

That’s right! The favorite fall drink of many Americans doesn’t quite contain what most of you think it contains. It turns out that somebody tracked down the actual ingredients in a Pumpkin Spice Latte from Starbucks and found that it only contains a pumpkin-flavored syrup.

Honestly, I’m not all that surprised. As somebody who has worked an espresso machine for years, I can tell you that putting specialized ingredients in somebody’s coffee drink takes some time and effort. In many cases, that time and effort is worth it, but when it comes to a drink that you will be making 200 million times, you want a standardized, easy procedure that you can quickly do without thinking over and over again. What could be easier than “squirt a pump of this syrup in there”? Still, I imagine some people will be rather unhappy with this revelation, especially when you consider…

American farms grow more than a billion pounds of pumpkin a year!

Pumpkin patch image by Harald Bischoff

That’s $141 million worth of pumpkins harvested every fall. Illinois alone supplied 496 million pounds of pumpkin in 2008. Other major pumpkin producers are Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California. Only a small number of these will wind up as jack-o’lanterns or decorations; most will be processed into pies, soups, breads and animal feeds.

The largest pumpkin on record was grown this year by California farmer John Hawkley, with his prize-winner clocking in at 2,058 pounds! The most common decorative variety of pumpkin, the one we think of when we picture pumpkins in our head, is the Connecticut field pumpkin, but there are many others. The varieties you will most likely find in your pumpkin pies are Butternut Squash, Winter Crookneck Squash, Golden Cushaw Squash, and Long Island Cheese Pumpkins.

While we’re on the subject of eating pumpkins…

Pumpkin flowers are edible

Pumpkin Flower image by Vishalsh521

When we think about eating pumpkins, we usually think of taking that pumpkin pulp and baking it into our pies or breads, or we think of crunching on those pumpkin seeds. We don’t usually imagine eating the flowers of the pumpkin plant, yet if you wanted to put them in your salad or cook them in your soup, you would be getting a good source of both calcium and vitamin C!

There are many ways to cook pumpkin flowers, if you are so inclined. Here’s a recipe for fried pumpkin flowers. Here’s one for a pumpkin-flower sauce. This country-style recipe uses corn meal and eggs to make a pumpkin flower breakfast. Want a pumpkin flower recipe using prawns, fish sauce, and dill? If that’s your thing, here you go.

If you plan to give these recipes a try, here’s some helpful hints. First, if you are growing your own pumpkin plant, only use the male flower (the one with a pollen-covered stamen). The female flower will grow into a pumpkin. Second, use your flowers quickly, preferably the day you pick them. They don’t last long in the refrigerator. Also, be sure to soak them to remove any dirt, and clip off the stamen and collar before you cook them.

Learning all of these unusual facts certainly gave me a new perspective on the humble pumpkin, as I hope it did for you. I say we all give this symbol of fall some respect this year.

Or... fire it out of an air cannon. I guess that works, too.

Or… fire it out of an air cannon. I guess that works, too.

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