The word ‘pumpkin’ will most likely bring many images and memories to the mind’s eye; trick-or-treating on a cool autumn evening, sharing a tasty pie with family and loved ones around the Thanksgiving table, and of course- jack-o-lanterns (which will have their own blog post as Halloween grows near)! What an iconic fruit the pumpkin is. A fruit that you can grow in your own raised planter beds. Let’s take a look at the world famous pumpkin!
Pumpkins are a type of winter squash. The word pumpkin has no agreed upon botanical or scientific meaning, however in North American English ‘pumpkin’ traditionally refers to only certain round orange verities of winter squash. Most of us have a definite idea of what a pumpkin looks like.
There is debate on the botanical origin of the pumpkin, but it is thought that, perhaps, the main type of pumpkin comes from the wild plant, Cucurbita trexana, known as the Texas gourd. It is native to Texas’ southeastern region and found only in the wild, especially near sandy riverbeds. A picture below:
Above: Fruit of the Cucurbita trexana, known as the Texas gourd
Below: Cucurbita trexana vine
There are many types of pumpkins, but the type we most associate with the traditional orange rounded smooth look is called Cucurbita pepo. The standard variety used for jack-o-lanterns is called ‘Connecticut field’ (generally 15 – 25 lbs).
Connecticut field variety of Cucurbita pepo, shown with vines and fruit
Pumpkins are one of the oldest domesticated plants. Pumpkin fragments have been found in Mexico dating back as early as 7,500 BC. That’s 9,500 years ago.
What’s in a name?
The English word ‘pumpkin’ has a long history itself, shrouded in overgrown vine-like mystery. The word is thought to have its origins with the ancient Greek word, ‘πέπων.’ Didn’t quite catch that? When translated into English ‘πέπων’ means ‘ripen.’ But English doesn’t exist yet in our timeline, so the next step is Latin. The Romans took the Greek word ‘πέπων’ and, when transformed into the Latin alphabet looks like ‘pepon’ (singular) or ‘peponem’ (plural), used it as their word for ‘melon.’
In theory, the Latin word ‘peponem’ became the middle French word ‘pompon,’ and, yes, French ‘pompon’ is where the English word ‘pompom’ comes from, and both mean ‘decorative ball of fibrous material.’ Pumpkins and pompoms, anyone? I think we can see a visual, and now linguistic, connection.
English loans many words from French, and the early modern English word ‘pompion’ (from French ‘pompon’ traveled across the Atlantic with English colonist. Now in North America, when these English speakers saw what we think of as pumpkins for the first time, and noted their satisfyingly rounded fibrous shapes, the word ‘pumpkin’ soon began to form. By the 1600s, English colonists were using this word.
It must be said, again, that this history, as fun as it is, has a bit of conjecture in it. The origin is not known for sure, and an alternative (and possibly more accurate) history goes as such:
The Massachusett people, native to the northeast US, where those same English colonists were setting up camp, had a word, ‘pôhpukun,’ which translates to ‘grows forth round’. The English took the word ‘pôhpukun,’ which changed over time (as all words do, you sticklers for pronunciation) to ‘pumpkin’ and bestowed it onto the now famous fruit.
Let’s take a break from the dense stuff. Here are some quick facts about pumpkins:
- In 2019 China accounted for 37% of the world’s production of pumpkins. This is the single most of any country. After China comes: Ukraine, Russia, Mexico, Spain, and then the US.
- Pumpkin fruits are a type of botanical berry known as a pepo.
- Typically, pumpkin fruits weigh between 6 and 18 lbs, but some types regularly weigh over 75 lbs. Certain types of ‘pumpkins’ can grow thousands of pounds (see below)
- The color of pumpkins derives from orange carotenoid pigments, which the human body converts to vitamin A when consumed.
- Pumpkins are one of the most popular crops in the United States, with over 1,5 billion pounds, generally, produced in a year. California is one of the top pumpkin producing states, however Illinois produces the most.
- Nestle, operating under the brand name Libby’s, produces 85% of the processed pumpkins in the US at their plant in Morton, Illinois.
Some large pumpkins for your viewing pleasure. Most giant pumpkins come from varieties of Cucurbita maxima, which have been developed through the efforts of botanical societies and enthusiast farmers.
Travis Gienger (pictured above) of Anoka, Minnesota with his 2020 prize winning pumpkin. Weighing 2,350 pounds, which is a little shy of the 2016 world’s heaviest pumpkin, at a stunning 2,624.6 lbs, grown by Mathias Willemijns of Belgium (below). Every year produces new records. Check your local paper for up to date heavy pumpkin information.
Keys to growing these monstrous pumpkins? Seed from a lineage of giants, treating them with fertilizer every other day, constant moisture, and burying the vine in the soil to promote rooting.
Planting Pumpkins in Your Very Own Planter Beds
Pumpkins are a warm weather crop, usually planted in July, but they can be planted in May in Southern California. Pumpkin plant growth is best in soils that hold water well. Pumpkin crop may suffer if there is a lack of water or cold temperatures (below 65 Fahrenheit). Soil that is sandy with poor water retention or poorly drained soils that become waterlogged after heavy rains, or too much irrigation, can be detrimental to pumpkin plant and fruit growth.
Many areas of Southern California have sandy, very well draining soil. This depends on your specific location, and the history of the soil on your property. Soil amendments might be needed to add organic composts and soil types for pumpkin patch growth. We will be happy to discuss soil amendment possibilities with you.
Pumpkins produce both male and female flowers with fertilization effected by bees. In the US, pumpkins have been historically pollinated by the native squash bee. That bee population has declined, probably partly due to the pesticide imidacloprid. Most commercial plantings are best pollinated by hives of honeybees, which also allow the production and sale of honey that the bees produce from pumpkin pollen.
Are you interested in growing your own pumpkins? Growing vegetables in general? We build custom planter boxes that are perfect for vegetable gardens. Contact us to discuss planter bed options, soil amendments, or any other landscape wish and need that you have.
A pumpkin patch in Winchester Oregon. Are you feeling the fall spirit? We certainly are.
For more fall fun (including a pumpkin patch), go check out Pierce College’s Halloween Harvest Festival!