Pumpkins have become more than just jack-o-lanterns. They and their cousins, squash and gourds, are now the centerpieces when decorating for fall, a season that ranks right behind Christmas for holiday décor.
Pumpkins, squash and gourds are related. All pumpkins are squash, but not all squash are pumpkins. Confusing? Pumpkins are any squash that are larger, round and orange. If they are not round and are other colors, then they are called squash.
Of course plant breeders looking for the unusual now have created pumpkins in white, green and varying shades of orange.
Pumpkins are native to Central America, and their roots in the United States can be traced back to Colonial times, when they were used for ingredients in the pie crust.
Colonists learned the value of this food source when they cut the top off, scooped out the seeds and filled the squash with milk, honey and other spices, roasting it all in hot coals and thus creating the first pumpkin pie.
The seeds were roasted and used as a food source and even medicine.
Picking the right pumpkin is a personal preference in many ways, as beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Round, squatty, oblong, without scratches or with, they all have their own character. Success in selecting a pumpkin is not about shape, but rather about choosing one that will stay fresh until Thanksgiving.
When choosing a pumpkin, look closely at the flesh of the orb. Avoid pumpkins that have cracks or splits.
Gently squeeze or press your fingers into the fruit. Pay close attention to the blossom end, or bottom, and around the stem. A fresh pumpkin should be solid to the touch. Avoid ones that have soft spots or sunken areas; these mean decay has already set in.
Avoid the temptation to carry the pumpkin by the stem: It is not a built-in handle. The stem’s connection to the pumpkin is not strong enough to support the weight of the fruit, and once the stem breaks off, decay is not far behind. Though it is more awkward, carry your selection from the bottom.
Pumpkins store best under cooler conditions, but either in the home or outdoors they will keep for several months. Hard freezes late in the season will damage pumpkins outdoors, causing them to turn to mush.
Some recommend wiping the fruit off with a solution of bleach water to reduce decay. This usually isn’t necessary.
Picking pumpkins is a great family activity and a friendly way to celebrate the season. Search out the right pumpkin for you and enjoy: No matter the size, shape or color, they add a festive touch.
Dennis Patton is a horticulture agent with Kansas State University Research and Extension. Got a question for him or other university extension experts? Email them to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit KCGardens.KansasCity.com.