Ask a Naturalist: Why pumpkins?

A variety of tasty pumpkins and it's relatives sit on the lawn at Rocky Ridge Orchard in Bowdoin. From left to right: front row: Baby bear pumpkin, Warted dumplin gourd. Second row: Autumn harvest pumpkin, Loing Island cheese squash, Sugar pie pumpkin, Fingers gourd Pam pumpkin. Third row: Yellow princess pumpkin, Acorn squash, Pickaple pumpkin, Blue squash, Li’l Pump-Ke-Mon pumpkin. Fourth row: Kuncklehead pumpkin, Big warty gourd, Autumn king

This article was written by Emily Bowers, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Naturalist at North Mississippi Regional Park

The fall season provides a transition between the summer harvest and the dark of winter. So, it’s no wonder that festive autumn decorations are full of late season crops such as corn, wheat stalks, hay bales and of course a variety of gourds in many different colors, shapes, textures and sizes. How though, did pumpkins become the star of the fall show?

Gourds are believed to be one of the earliest cultivated plants. Archeological evidence suggests that gourds were domesticated and intentionally grown as long as 13,000 years ago and probably in use even longer. Originally cultivated for their carving potential, they were made into kitchen utensils and vessels, beehives, birdhouses, animal traps, fishnet floats, musical instruments, masks, toys, and more. In certain parts of the world gourds were probably in use as containers long before the advent of pottery.

Pumpkins, squash and gourds are members of the enormously diverse Cucurbitaceae family, which contains more than 100 different genus, over 700 species and many subspecies varieties due to centuries of human cultivation. Pumpkins originated in South and Central America over 5,500 years ago, alongside other ancient western hemisphere crops such as maize (corn). Native peoples brought pumpkin seeds from Mexico into other parts of North America until they were widespread and abundant. Pumpkins are now grown on every continent except Antarctica.

The pumpkin was unknown to Europe until the 16th Century. Columbus brought pumpkin seeds back to Europe, but they did not grow well there. In 1584 the French explorer, Jacques Cartier, found pumpkins in what is now Canada. He called them “pepons,” a Greek word meaning “large melons.” Over time, the name morphed to pompon, then pompion and finally pumpkin as the American colonists came to call it.

When Europeans arrived to colonize America they began relying heavily on the plentiful pumpkins as a food source. For many, pumpkins made the difference between starvation and survival. They were grown easily, with high yields, and could be stored all winter. In the New England area, pumpkins and other winter squash reach maturity in fall, so that invariably was the season of pumpkins. It’s theorized that the origin of our modern pumpkin pie was developed by colonists filling a hollowed-out pumpkin with a mixture of milk, spices and honey, then roasting it over hot ashes.

As more colonists came to America, the beliefs and customs of different European groups began to blend together and new traditions emerged. Autumn season celebrations coalesced into an American Halloween. The folklore of Irish immigrants made it so pumpkins could take their place as the featured jack-o-lanterns and really shine. The story tells of an unsavory blacksmith called Stingy Jack who had tricked and swindled during life, so became an unwelcome wandering spirit when he died, carrying a hollowed out turnip with an ember inside to light his way. The Irish referred to this wayward spirit as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern.” In the UK, people made their own versions of Jack’s lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips, potatoes or other bulbous root vegetables. These were then placed at windows or doors for protection because it was thought if an evil spirit were to encounter something as fiendish looking as themselves, they would run away in terror. Once in America, it was soon realized that the bounty of pumpkins would make perfect jack o’lanterns. Over time, the practice of carving spooky faces on pumpkins evolved and modern pumpkin-carving is often done for ornamental and entertainment purposes.

Pumpkins have truly been a symbol of autumn in America for hundreds of years and this month we get to appreciate that as they adorn our communities. On Saturdays this month join us for Family Fundays from 1-3 p.m. at various Minneapolis regional parks, including Gourd Time on October 10 at the JD River’s Children’s Garden. Discover the world of gourd-geous gourds in the garden, explore how they grow and their unusual shapes, colors and textures. Plus create art projects to take home for autumn decorations. Find more Family Fundays and other outdoor, socially distanced, in-person programs, including Trail Trekkers and Noticing Nature hikes, Storybook Strolls and youth Neighborhood Nature Club as well as kit-based virtual workshops at minneapolisparks.org/register.

Get outside and into Nearby Nature, with self-directed, nature-based activities designed to enhance the experience of park goers of all ages while exploring parks. All Nearby Nature activities are free and no registration is necessary. Get activity locations each week at the Minneapolis Parks Neighborhood Naturalist page on Facebook. Share experiences and photos through the hashtag #NearbyNatureMpls or send feedback to our email nearbynature@minneapolisparks.org. Visit the Kroening Interpretive Center Facebook page for more fun ways to connect with nature in our community.

Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board program buildings remain closed to the public until further notice due to the impacts of COVID-19. The MPRB’s priority is the health and safety of our park visitors and our employees. Visit minneapolisparks.org/coronavirus or sign up to receive email updates at minneapolisparks.org/subscribe by selecting “COVID-19” in the “News Updates” section.

Do you have a question about nature in your own backyard? Then send it our way by emailing northmississippi@minneapolisparks.org and it could appear in a future article.