The Story of Pumpkins
Pumpkins have been in cultivation for thousands of years. Nine thousand year old seeds found in caves in north east Mexico indicate that pumpkins originated in Central America. There is evidence that edible squashes were grown in Africa, India and China from the 6th century AD, but they didn’t make it to Europe until the 16th century, when they were brought back from the first journeys to the New World. Exotic and sweet tasting, pumpkins became very fashionable in Europe. They were stuffed with apples and sweet herbs, and then baked. An early incarnation of pumpkin pie was made by frying the flesh with apples and herbs, mixing it with sugar and egg, and then baking it with a crust topping.
The name 'pumpkin' comes from the Greek word 'pepon', meaning 'sun-ripened'. This name was reinterpreted by the French as 'pompon', Anglicised to become 'pumpion' before being rebranded 'pumpkin' by early American settlers. The French also had a rethink, and a French pumpkin is now known as une citrouille.
The story of pumpkins is not complete, of course, without a mention of their starring rôle in Halloween celebrations. Early Irish immigrants to America found the pumpkin to be superior lantern making material to their traditional swede or beetroot, and the pumpkin has been a defining symbol of Halloween since the 1800s.
Let's cut to the chase: will pumpkins improve my sexual performance in any way?
Claims about the medicinal properties of pumpkins abounded when they were 'discovered' by Europeans. Native Americans had of course been exploiting the medicinal benefits of pumpkins (amongst other plants) for many years before the arrival of the Conquistadors. Unpleasant-tasting pumpkin seed tea was administered as a diuretic, and also as a treatment for tapeworms, which is common practice amongst herbal medics today.
Central Europeans believed that pumpkin seeds increased testosterone by preserving the prostate gland. It transpires that pumpkin seeds contain high levels of magnesium, which has proven effective in the treatment of prostate ailments. Pumpkin seeds are also good source of zinc and phosphorous, both of which are important nutrients for sexual function in men. This may explain the reputation of pumpkin seeds as an aphrodisiac. Unfortunately the aphrodisiac effect of food has no basis in scientific fact, and must be taken to be entirely psychological, so slipping seed into your sweetheart’s sandwiches is just not going to cut it. Try eating them naked, by candlelight, whilst listening to Serge Gainsbourg.
What exactly is a pumpkin?
Pumpkins are simple fruits, with pulpy flesh and large, flat, oval seeds. Technically speaking, they are in fact berries. Members of the gourd family, Curcubitacae, pumpkins are related to melons, cucumbers and other gourds. There are few botanical distinctions between pumpkins and other winter squash, and botanical authorities hold conflicting views on the exact definition of each.
Most edible squash are from one of three main species: Curcubita maxima, C. moschata and C. pepo. It is an incredibly diverse group, displaying wide variation in size, shape, colour and texture. The smallest cultivars are no bigger than a tennis ball. Round, squat, long or bisected fruits in a wide spectrum of orange, yellow and green colours are displayed, and the skin can be smooth, warted or ridged.
The plants themselves are usually large, trailing vines with broad, five or seven-lobed leaves which vary in colour and markings depending on the species. The stems and leaves are covered in short, stiff hairs, which are mildly irritant. The flowers are funnel shaped and bright yellow in colour. Plants from the Curcubitacae family are monoecious, bearing separate male and female plants on the same plant (which means you need only one plant for fertilization to occur.) More male than female flowers are produced. Male flowers are recognised by their longer stem and single calyx, while the embryonic fruit is visible at the base of the short stemmed female flower.
Champion giant pumpkins!
The highly competitive
world of champion giant
pumpkins brings out the monomaniac
in some growers. William Greer of Pickton, Ontario
grew the first pumpkin to break the 1 tonne barrier in 1996. His glory was short lived, however: the world title was snatched from his grasp an hour later by a pumpkin from Clarence, New York
that weighed in at 1061 lb. Nathan and Paula Zehr had spent a total of 900 manhours nurturing their world beater, which was about the size of a small rhinoceros
. A giant pumpkin, typically disfigured during growth by the force of gravity
on its immense weight, resembles nothing more than the lumpen, sprawling stomach of a morbidly obese
person who has recently suffered a fatal beta carotene overdose
. If you should wish to grow one of these, the secret lies in selecting seed from a suitably enormous parent pumpkin, planting early, and maintaining optimum conditions for growth through carefully regulating climactic
conditions and feeding and watering regimes
. The current world record
, held by Charlie Houghton, is 1337.6 lbs.
Can I grow my own pumpkins?
Pumpkins grow rapidly given the right conditions. Their broad leaves provide good ground cover, suppressing weed growth and reducing water loss from the soil by evaporation. There are smaller varieties and bush cultivars, which are useful if growing space is limited. Pumpkins will also scramble up walls and cane structures, which makes an attractive display of the decorative qualities of the developing flowers and fruits, and encourages even ripening.
They are warm-season annual plants with no frost tolerance, preferring an average temperature of 18-30°C. Grow in a warm, sunny, sheltered site as exposure to wind will increase water loss (see factors affecting the rate of transpiration). Pumpkins are composed of 90% water so it’s important not to let the soil dry out. Pumpkins also have fairly high nitrogen requirements, and the ideal soil for growing any type of squash would be fertile, humus rich, moisture retentive but free draining, and have a pH of 6.0 (slightly acid). However, by incorporating organic matter into the soil, feeding when fruit begins to set and watering when necessary, most soil imbalances can be addressed and pumpkins will grow well as long as the temperature is high enough.
Sowing and planting
Seeds can be sown direct, at intervals of 1 metre or more, depending on the cultivar, when the soil begins to warm up in spring. Plant two or three seeds together and later thin them out, selecting the strongest
plant. In colder areas, sow indoors in pots a couple of weeks before the last expected frost. Sow two seeds in each 8cm pot and thin out the weaker seedling. Harden off by placing in a cold frame or sheltered area of the garden
for a few days before planting out when the risk of frost has passed.
Keep the soil weed free by hoeing regularly. Applying a mulch
will help to suppress weeds, as well as regulating soil temperature and conserving soil moisture. Feed with a general, balanced NPK
fertiliser soon after planting to encourage root
and foliage growth. Water regularly until the root system is well established, and in times of drought. The long, trailing shoots can be trained using bent wire to pin the stems to the ground, or grown over supports, which must be well constructed if they are to withstand the weight of the plant. It will require tying in to the supports initially, but once established the plant’s tendrils will hold it in place. Remove any unwanted shoots. If you want to grow a small number of larger pumpkins, you can remove new flowers as they appear, after the fruit you require has set. Feed fortnightly from mid summer until early autumn with a high potassium fertilizer
for good quality fruit.
Leave the fruit to mature on the plant for as long as possible. Raise them off the ground on bricks or wooden blocks to prevent rotting. When ripe, the stems will crack and the skin will toughen. Pick before the first frosts, or approximately 12-20 weeks after planting, depending on the desired size. If you wish to store the fruit for any length of time, cut them off with as much stalk as possible and leave in the sun to further harden the skin for several days if possible. A thicker skin minimises water loss, allowing longer storage times. A temperature of around 10°C and good ventilation, to delay decomposition, and high humidity, to prevent water loss, are the ideal storage conditions. Stored in this way, pumpkins will keep for four to six months.
Pests and diseases
Slug damage in the early stages of growth and cucumber mosaic virus are the main threats. Slugs can be combatted with strategically positioned metaldehyde pellets, beer traps, and nocturnal patrols with a salt shaker or a sharp implement. Cucumber mosaic virus, spread by aphids, affects the leaf’s ability to photosynthesize and cannot be cured. Remove and burn affected plants, take care not to contaminate healthy plants, and plant replacements elsewhere.
Can't I just buy one instead?
Not everyone has the time, space or inclination to grow pumpkins. When buying a pumpkin, select those which are heavy for their size and free from cuts, cracks soft spots. If you're going to eat it, choose a smaller one, as larger fruits can taste bland and watery and the flesh sometimes deteriorates and becomes stringy. If you're lucky enough to live in a pumpkin producing area, try buying direct from a farm, so you know the fruit hasn't been badly stored or damaged in transit.
Admittedly, pumpkins take a little effort to prepare, but don’t let that tough skin get between you and the best meal for a cold winter’s day that you ever ate. Dense, smooth and ooh! umami, pumpkin based savoury dishes are the last word in comfort food. The Italian recipe for pumpkin risotto is perhaps the epitome of this - soft, warm and nourishing. Pumpkin is ideal for soups, stews, and sweet or savoury flans and pies. It also makes a moist, light bread. Boiled, steamed or, ideally, slowly oven roasted pumpkin, is delicious mashed with butter and a little sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Pumpkin seeds are a healthy, energy boosting snack, containing essential fatty acids and various vitamins and minerals. Mix a handful in with the flour when you're making wholemeal bread, add them to homemade muesli, or scatter them over salads.
Pumpkin flowers make a great starter dipped in a standard batter mix and then shallow fried in olive oil.
per cup of boiled, drained pumpkin:Calories 49
Protein 2 grams
Carbohydrate 12 grams
Dietary Fibre 3 grams
Calcium 37 mg
Magnesium 22 mgv
Potassium 564 mg
Selenium .50 mg
Vitamin C 12 mg
Niacin 1 mg
Folic acid 21 mcg
Vitamin A 2650 IU
Vitamin E 3 mg
Zinc 1 mg
The orange colour of pumpkins comes from the beta-carotene they contain. Beta carotene, the plant version of vitamin A, is a powerful anti-oxidant, thought to be beneficial to health in a number of ways, mainly by boosting the immune system. The fibre content benefits the digestive system, and pumpkin is fat and cholesterol free, making it heart-friendly too (until it becomes a component of pumpkin pie, that is).