It’s pumpkin season

“There are three things that I’ve learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.”

— Linus (from “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”)

I can’t think of any horticultural crop that signals the arrival of autumn more than pumpkins. They’re as much a part of the fall season as colder temperatures and shorter days, trees turning crimson, gold, and orange, the smell of fallen leaves wafting on the crisp, clear air, huge flocks of migrating geese, corn mazes, hayrides, apple cider and Halloween costumes and decorations.

Pumpkins then and now

Pumpkins are an ancient crop cultivated by Indigenous people across the Americas long before the Europeans arrived. Pumpkin seeds have been found at archaeological sites in Mexico, Central and South America, and the United States — including sites in the American southwest dating back 6,000 years.

In 1749, Peter Kalm, a Swedish botanist who explored the wilds of New York and Canada wrote: “Some (Indians) mix flour with the pumpkins when making porridge. They often make pudding or even pie or a kind of tart out of them.”

Pumpkins are still grown for food throughout the Americas. In fact, many people in countries around the world depend on pumpkin as a staple in their daily diet.

For many of those people, growing crops for decorative, aesthetic, or recreational value would be considered absurd at best, or completely unheard of. In the United States, however, pumpkins are, more often than not, grown for ornamental use; much more so than for food. They’re frequently displayed in yards and on porches, or presented as centerpieces on dining tables or perched upon fireplace mantles. But most are turned into jack-o-lanterns, with frightening faces carved into them, as Halloween nears.

The pumpkin industry

The pumpkin industry is a highly-variable one. Crop conditions may differ greatly by region. The market is regarded as limited and seasonal. In the northeastern United States, most pumpkins are sold in local markets or directly to consumers.

Mature fruit can range in weight from a few ounces (miniatures) to several hundred pounds (jack-o’-lantern varieties). All are vigorous growers and heavy feeders that require adequate nutrition to produce a good crop.

They’re susceptible to many different diseases, the most prevalent being Powdery Mildew, Downey Mildew and Phytophthora blight. In recent decades, however, plant breeders and seed companies have released a multitude of varieties that are resistant to Powdery Mildew and, for that reason, widely used by growers.

According to the Economic Research Service (ERS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), farmers in every American state grow pumpkins, but farmers in six states — California, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Texas and Virginia — produce most of them. That doesn’t mean that pumpkins aren’t an important crop in New York. They are. According to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, New York farmers harvested 765-million pounds of pumpkins, worth $15,390,000, off of 5,100 acres, last year.

And pumpkins have become essential to areas of the state that depend on agritourism (agricultural tourism). Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) works with agritourism entrepreneurs, community leaders, and rural economic development and tourism professionals across the region and throughout the state to promote and develop agritourism-related small businesses (i.e. farm stands, u-pick operations, farm bed and breakfasts, regional food hubs), events (i.e. farmers markets, harvest festivals), and initiatives (i.e. Adirondack Harvest, cuisine trails).

Pumpkins are not vegetables

Technically speaking, a pumpkin is not a vegetable. It’s a fruit; as are squash. Scientific classification makes this quite clear. A fruit is defined, botanically, as the mature ovaries of a plant. In other words, the part of the plant that develops from a flower and contains the seeds. Other fruits often thought of as vegetables include cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, string beans, and olives.

Vegetables, on the other hand, don’t contain seeds. They’re the other parts of a plant; the roots (e.g. beets, carrots, onions, potatoes, turnips), leaves (e.g. lettuce, spinach, kale,) or stems (e.g. celery, broccoli, cauliflower).

From a culinary standpoint, vegetables are less sweet or more savory. They’re served as a main dish or as part of the main dish. Fruits are more sweet or tart and are usually eaten as snacks or served as desserts.

Nutritionally, fruits and vegetables are similar. They’re typically chock-full of vitamins, minerals, and health-enhancing plant compounds such as antioxidants, while higher in fiber and lower in calories and fat than meats or other animal products.

Both fruits and vegetables can be made into juice.

Pumpkins are not berries

Some people will tell you that pumpkins are berries. They base their conclusion on the rather vague definition of a berry being a fruit derived from a single ovary with many seeds in fleshy pulp. But that definition is actually emphasizing that berries have seeds distributed throughout their flesh, rather than in a central pit area, like apples, pears, or grapes (which are also not berries).

You can argue that tomatoes are berries, however. And many botanists would agree.


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