University of Georgia
There's no surer sign that autumn is upon us than to see pumpkins turning orange in the field or showing up at local roadside markets. The humble pumpkin has become the hallmark of the harvest season.
And why not? It's native to our land. Benjamin Franklin could have trumpeted the pumpkin as our national vegetable just as easily as he did the turkey as our national bird.
Our history is rich with traditions relating to pumpkins. Native Americans used them as a staple in their diets. They roasted strips to eat and used dried strips of the fruit to weave into mats.
While pumpkin pie probably wasn't part of the first Thanksgiving meal, the pilgrims did eat pumpkin. Most likely, it was more of a pudding sweetened with honey and flavored with spices.
The noble pumpkin
Pumpkins are even prominent in literature. Remember Cinderella's coach? How about Charles Schulz's character Linus and his quest for the Great Pumpkin?
John Greenleaf Whittier even penned a poem, "The Pumpkin," around 1850. His words foretold the prominence pumpkins would hold in today's autumn traditions:
"Oh, fruit loved of boyhood, the old days recalling,
When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling,
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within."
Despite its roots in our history, the first jack-o'-lantern wasn't carved from a pumpkin, nor did it originate in America. It probably began in Ireland hundreds of years ago. We can trace it to the legend of a character named "Stingy Jack."
The rest of the story
Stingy Jack made a deal with the devil and wasn't allowed into Heaven. He was left to wander the Earth, and he placed a glowing ember in a turnip to light his way. He came to be known as "Jack of the lantern," from which we get the term jack-o'-lantern.
The Irish carved jack-o'-lanterns out of turnips, rutabagas, gourds or potatoes. They placed a light in them and displayed them on Allhallows Eve. Some say it was to keep Stingy Jack away or to ward off evil spirits, but other stories call it simply a celebration of the harvest and the end of summer.
When the Irish came to America, they soon realized that pumpkins made even better jack-o'-lanterns, thus beginning the American tradition.
Whether for jack-o'-lanterns at Halloween or just for fall decorations, pumpkins continue to be integral parts of the fall landscape.
The growing choices
Today, you can choose from many variations on size and color. The traditional, basketball-sized, orange fruit is still out there. But neither size nor color is an obstacle anymore. While orange is still the norm, the market offers white, bluish-gray, buff or even red pumpkins, too.
A plethora of miniature types come in all colors, too, from orange to white to mixed.
If you want a behemoth on your block, pick from one of the giant varieties. Dill's Atlantic Giant is the variety used in most competitive pumpkin growing. Finding these fruits from 300 to 600 pounds is not uncommon. The world record is around 1,200 pounds.
You don't have to stick with orange giants, either. White pumpkins and other varieties range in size from a bushel basket to a small automobile.
Just take a look around. There's no problem finding the right one to continue an American tradition. Pumpkins in the fall are just a part of our culture.
Linus would be proud.
(Terry Kelley is a Cooperative Extension horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)
(Terry Kelley is a former University of Georgia Cooperative Extension horticulturist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)