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South Georgia pumpkins no longer impossible

By Dan Rahn
University of Georgia

There's a good reason most farmers don't even think of growing pumpkins in south Georgia. It's always been almost impossible to do. But a new pumpkin variety could soon change these growers' outlook on Halloween.

"Most of the pumpkins traditionally grown commercially in Georgia are Cucurbita pepo types," said George Boyhan, a University of Georgia horticulturist in Statesboro, Ga. "They're in the same species as summer squash. And they're highly susceptible to viruses and other foliar diseases."

UGA horticulturists have been developing a new pumpkin from plants in another species, Cucurbita moschata. It's the same species as butternut squash, Boyhan said.

"We selected a squash that has a good jack-o'-lantern appearance, in terms of shape and color," he said. "It has a much higher level of disease resistance, particularly to viral diseases."

Pumpkin's roots

The new pumpkin got its start from seeds that UGA horticulturists Gerard Krewer and Marco Fonseca and Union County Extension agent Tim Jennings collected in the wilds of Brazil. They were there in 1996 and '99 on UGA exchange trips to help small farmers.

Since '96, Boyhan, Krewer and UGA horticulturist Darbie Granberry have been making improved selections for adaptation to Georgia conditions.

The result, Boyhan said, is a pumpkin farmers will finally be able to grow in south Georgia.

Field day debut

The scientists will be showing off the new pumpkin Oct. 21 in a twilight field day at the UGA Vidalia Onion and Vegetable Research Center near Reidsville, Ga.

The field day will start with a look at pumpkin research plots at 5:30 p.m. The center's organic Vidalia onion plots will also be on display. A sponsored dinner will cap the event at 6:30.

In the research plots this year, the difference between conventional pumpkins and the new variety was striking. "The other plants absolutely melted" from foliar diseases, Boyhan said. The new plants, though, were thriving.

The new variety is one farmers could grow in north Georgia, too, where the state's small pumpkin crop is grown entirely now. "But the whole purpose of this variety is to give south Georgia growers a pumpkin they can grow, too," Boyhan said.

Coming soon

Boyhan expects to have seed available to a limited number of growers for the 2005 season. Sufficient supplies for virtually all growers should be ready in 2006.

Farmers who are already growing produce for you-pick, roadside and other local markets have long struggled to grow pumpkins, said Jeff Cook, a UGA Extension Service agent in Tattnall County.

"There's a lot of interest in pumpkins among our you-pick growers," Cook said. "They've been asking us, 'When are we going to get a pumpkin with more resistance?'"

In Tattnall County's 18-grower cooperative, "Farm Fresh Tattnall," several farmers already grow pumpkins every year, Cook said. But they struggle.

"It's very labor-intensive," Cook said. "You have to get out there and spray every few days, and you never know whether a disease might wipe you out. Those guys are very interested in a pumpkin with disease resistance."

(Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

(Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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