The leaves are changing, a chilly autumn wind is blowing and front porches host bright orange pumpkins. As Halloween or All Hallow’s Eve — whichever you prefer — draws near, the pumpkin starts to show itself everywhere. But have you ever wondered why?
Take a look at the lore behind Jack-O-Lanterns, the health benefits of pumpkins and how some farmers can grow these massive gourds.
Jack-o’-Lanterns get their roots from an Irish tradition. The legend tells of a man named Jack — nicknamed “Stingy Jack.” Jack, living up to his nickname, was a trickster. Because of this he was denied access to heaven and hell after he died and was cursed to wander the Earth for eternity. He was given a burning piece of coal that he placed in a carved-out turnip to use as a lantern and began his journey across the Earth, earning him the new nickname, “Jack of the Lantern” or “Jack-o’-Lantern.”
To keep Jack’s wandering spirit away, the Scottish and the Irish would carve grotesque faces into turnips and leave them on windowsills and doorways. The English did something similar with beets. When the Irish and Scottish immigrated to North America, they continued this tradition with pumpkins.
As wandering spirits and souls became synonymous with Halloween or All Saints Day — based on the Celtic festival of Samhain — so did carving pumpkins to scare away spirits and souls that may wander in, like Stingy Jack’s.
Besides Jack-o’-lantern’s creepy, glowing faces, one of the best parts of carving pumpkins is eating the pumpkin seeds. Roasting pumpkin seeds with delicious seasoning makes for a tasty treat, but these savory seeds have numerous other benefits.
Some of the first pumpkin seeds were discovered in modern-day Mexico, dating back to 7000 to 5550 B.C., and are today a vital part of the Mexican celebration of Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Used to make pumpkin seed oil, this is a key ingredient in the traditional Mayan dish, papadzules.
Along with celebration, pumpkin seeds were also used in medicines. They’ve been used as a home or folk remedy to treat ailments like kidney stones, urinary and bladder infections and high blood pressure. Pumpkin seeds were even once used as part of a treatment for intestinal worms.
If you’re planning to cook with pumpkins, it’s always a good idea to double-check that you have the correct variety. Some pumpkins are not edible. Though there are over 150 types of pumpkins in the world, many fall under the same domesticated pumpkin genus, Cucurbita. Here are five types of Cucurbita you’re likely to see around Halloween.
Humans domesticated certain types of pumpkins about 10,000 years ago, according to a study in PNAS. These pumpkins typically fall under the genus Cucurbita and include pumpkins, gourds, and squashes. According to the study, these domestic pumpkins co-adapted to the environment along with our early ancestors while other species of pumpkins disappeared along with megafaunal mammals.
Sometimes referred to as ‘pepo,‘ these are the typical field pumpkins you would use for carving Jack-O-Lanterns. C. pepo also refers to several types of summer squash, acorn squash, zucchini, and ornamental gourds.
The field pumpkin isn’t one you’ll want to eat. They are often more stringy and watery and don’t have a lot of flavor; the same goes for giant pumpkins. However, roasting their seeds makes for a tasty snack.
(Credit:Zigzag Mountain Art/Shutterstock)
This group of domestic pumpkins and squash looks a little different than field pumpkins. While some may still be orange, they are typically smaller, wider, and have a more ribbed edge. Some have bumps that look like warts, and some look like they have a tight band around them.
Looking more like a watermelon, Cucurbita ficifolia is an oval-shaped, green squash. Found all over the world, but mostly in South America, Asia, and Africa, C. ficifolia is used for its fruit and seeds.
With more muted shades of greens and tans, the Cucurbita argyrosperma is harvested for its seeds and fruit. Often referred to as cushaw squash, you may see it in strange, oblong shapes, but it’s still a popular fall squash, great for cooking and baking.
Cucurbita Moschata is a domestic species of squash that originated in South America. Butternut squash is one of the most common C. moschata, along with several others that are used for making pumpkin pie filling.
Besides pumpkin seeds, pumpkins have other nutritional values as well.
Pumpkin is high in nutrients like beta carotene, which your body uses to create vitamin A. This vitamin helps sharpen your eyesight (like carrots), is excellent for your reproductive system and keeps your other organs healthy. Vitamin A can also help curb certain cancer risks.
Being high in fiber and potassium, pumpkin can help prevent unwanted weight gain and lower the risk of type 2 diabetes and kidney stones. Pumpkin is also rich in vitamins C and E, which help boost your immune system. However, this doesn’t mean you should overindulge in pumpkin pie or other desserts. Many of them have extra sugars, which can lead to health complications.
Much like there are pumpkins to eat and carve, there are also pumpkins that are meant to be champions. Farmers bring their giant pumpkins to festivals and fairs each year to see if they have the grand champion pumpkin. While these pumpkins aren’t exactly flattering, they are impressive to look at. They’re often lumpy, misshapen and discolored, but they look like something out of a fairy tale. However, it isn’t fairy magic that makes these gourds so large.
According to Jessica Savage, a botanist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota – Duluth, along with selective breeding, giant pumpkins are naturally good at moving – but not their physical self. Giant pumpkins, like most plants, have a vascular system that moves and distributes water and nutrients to the plant and fruit, called the xylem and phloem. The xylem helps to transport water, while the phloem helps move nutrients and sugars.
Though it seems like giant pumpkins would have a higher amount of sugar than other, smaller pumpkins, they actually don’t; they are just better at moving sugars around. Giant pumpkins, according to Savage, can add on nearly 50 pounds a day during peak season. Good genetics combined with maintained temperature and mycorrhizal fungi, giant pumpkins keep getting bigger.
The largest pumpkin in the U.S. weighed 2,554 pounds, while the world record pumpkin from Italy was 2,702 pounds.
This article was originally published on Oct. 21, 2022 and has since been updated with new information by the Discover staff.