People who are new to growing pumpkins often don’t realize how many varieties are available. They also don’t realize that pumpkins are winter squash varieties.
Within North America, a “pumpkin” is a winter squash variety that is usually orange and globe-shaped. That definition is quickly changing as new varieties emerge, such as white or multi-colored pumpkins, ornamental or colossal types, and with smooth or bumpy skin. But within New Zealand and Australian English, “pumpkin” refers to any winter squash variety.
Squash was originally an Andean and Mesoamerican crop but archaeologists have found evidence of domestication going back over 8,000 years, from Canada all the way down to Argentina and Chile. About 4,000 years later beans and maize joined, completing the nutritional trifecta of a Three Sisters planting system in Native American horticulture. It was cultivated in North America when explorers arrived and soon appeared in European art in the 1600s. The English word “squash” comes from askutasquash, a Narragansett word meaning, “a green thing eaten raw.” Now squash is grown worldwide with China, Russia, India, the United States, and Egypt as the top-producing countries. Because it cures and transports so well it is primarily purchased fresh.
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Winter squash isn’t a vegetable. It’s classified as a fruit, specifically, a berry, because it does not contain a stone and come from a blossom with a single ovary. Domesticated squash species include cucurbita pepo (zucchini, acorn squash, most pumpkins,) moschata (butternut squash, crookneck, cheese) maxima (banana, hubbard, and turban,) ficifolia (black-seeded squash, pie melon,) and argyrosperma (pipian, cushaw.) They are notably high in vitamin A, vitamin C, niacin, folic acid, and iron.
How to Grow Pumpkins and Winter Squash
Knowing when to plant squash is crucial because all summer and winter squash varieties are highly frost-sensitive. Either sow directly after all danger of frost has passed or start in a large container within a greenhouse. If you start early, be sure the container is large enough that the plant does not become root bound by transplant time, because it deals poorly with transplant shock. Many experienced gardeners wait to direct-sow the seeds, believing the plants do better from the start if allowed to sprout and grow in the same location.
Be sure the plants have plenty of room, whether they grow in a bush, semi-bush, open, or vining habit. If you companion plant, be sure other plants are at least four feet from the squash because the broad leaves will soon overtake the space.
Seedling leaves emerge as a pair of thick, green ovals that look nothing like squash leaves. The true leaves come next as five-lobed or palmately divided, and can be jagged or smooth depending on squash variety. Some leaves are solid dark green while others have white spots along the veins.
If your squash is a vining habit, provide plenty of ground space or sturdy trellising. Gently train the vines up along the supports. When blossoms emerge, prepare to tie heavy fruit to the trellis with stretchy material such as cotton knit or old pantyhose. Growing pumpkins and squash vertically take care to ensure crops don’t break the vines.
With separate and distinct male and female blossoms, your squash may need hand-pollinating in the absence of beneficial insects. Male blossoms often emerge first, since they tend to follow cooler weather, though females may come first. Locate the male blossom as a large, yellow flower with a thin stem and three stamens which fuse together to look like a single protrusion in the center. The female has a miniature fruit at the stem end which will become a squash or pumpkin after pollination; this fruit is similar in shape to the mature version. Gently pluck the male flower off at the stem. Peel back the petals to expose the stamens. Touch the stamens to the collection of pistils within the female flower. You can pollinate several females with one male. If you don’t want to pluck off the blossom, tickle a cotton swab first against the male stamen to collect pollen then apply it to the female pistils.
If you grow several squash side by side and one plant only has female flowers, you can pollinate with male flowers from other plants as long as they are the same species. Pollinate c. pepo with other c. pepo, such as zucchini with acorn squash. The resulting fruit will be true to plant variety, though the seeds will be a crossbreed.
In fact, squash cross-breed so easily that seed saving requires diligence. If you grow a butternut squash beside an acorn squash, and grow no other squash in the vicinity, seeds will be true to species because one is moschata and one is pepo. However, planting pumpkin seeds beside patty pan will most likely produce offspring of an edible but unpalatable cross between the two. Seed savers who grow competing plants in close vicinity often hand-pollinate blossoms then wrap them in paper bags to protect pistils from competing pollen until the blossoms die back.
Summer squash should be picked while young and tender but winter squash stay on the vine much longer. If the variety does not naturally change colors when ripe, harvest when the stem is woody brown and foliage begins to die back. Cut the stem so some remains on the fruit, as this helps it cure better and store longer.
If an early frost hits before your crops mature, cut the stem before the frost hits and bring the squash inside. Set them in a warm, sunny window to help them ripen. A frost kills the vines and might not visibly harm the squash but it does shorten storage life.
Cure squash by leaving them in a dry, warm location for a couple of weeks. Store in a cool, dry location. Check on your squash every week or so to see how well it’s storing. If it begins to soften but has not gone bad, roast it and freeze the cooked flesh in appropriate containers. Do not use squash that weeps liquid.
Notable Squash and Pumpkin Varieties
Zucchino Rampicante (c. moschata): A close relative of butternut squash, this variety also goes by the names Tromboncino Zucchini and Zuccheta Rampicante. Edible before the blossom even pollinates, it soon grows to several feet long. Eaten fresh it tastes like zucchini; mature it tastes like butternut. Reserve plenty of room for this beautiful vine, as it quickly reaches 15-40 feet.
Dill’s Giant Atlantic (c. maxima): To win a Biggest Pumpkin competition, you must grow this variety. And you must provide plenty of water. A pumpkin reaching almost 2,000 pounds requires over 2,000 pounds of water. Fruit most commonly reach 50-100 pounds but plants need 70 square feet per plant in case you cultivate a whopper.
Gete-okosomin (c. maxima): Ancient seeds sat in a clay vessel for over 800 years until archaeologists dug them up at a Menominee reservation near Green Bay, Wisconsin. The seeds went to Winona LaDuke, an advocate of native seed sovereignty, who named them Gete-okosomin, an Anishinaabe word meaning, “really cool old squash.” The seeds are still difficult to obtain as they make their way first through Native communities and heirloom advocates.
Kakai (c. pepo): This beautiful Japanese variety is golden-orange with green tiger stripes but it’s often grown for its hull-less seeds instead of its beauty. This semi-bush plant is tolerant of poor growing conditions and bears two or three fruit, weighing five to eight pounds apiece.
Celebrating in Style
Pumpkins and squash hold a special place within the autumn holidays. Jack-o-lanterns, traditionally carved from turnips in Scotland and Ireland, represent souls denied entry into both Heaven and Hell. Settlers in North America soon replaced turnips with pumpkins, with are much easier to hollow out and carve.
Though pumpkin pie is a famous holiday treat, the best pies are actually not made with “pumpkins.” A sugar pie pumpkin can be bitter after roasting. Jack-o-lanterns are watery and tasteless. Pie critics claim the best fillings come from butternut, buttercup, and Long Island Cheese pumpkins, all cucurbita moschata, which are sweet and dense. For a bright orange pie, choose castillo squash, pureeing the stringy flesh until smooth. Most winter squashes are interchangeable in “pumpkin” recipes.
Autumn Curried Butternut Squash Soup
- 1 large butternut squash*
- 4 or 5 large carrots
- 3 cups apple juice
- 2 Tbsp. butter or olive oil (use oil for a Vegan recipe)
- 2 bell peppers of different colors, such as red and yellow, diced
- 1 large onion, diced
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 can coconut cream (or coconut milk for a lower-fat recipe)
- 2-3 Tbsp Vegan yellow curry paste, such as Mae Ploy brand
- ½ cup grated piloncillo sugar** (about 1 cone)
- ½ cup chopped fresh basil
- Salt, to taste
Peel butternut squash and carrots with a vegetable peeler. Chop into 1″ to 2” pieces and place in a high-sided pan with 1 cup apple juice. Cover pan. Roast at 400 degrees until both squash and carrots are extremely tender, about an hour. Cool until easy to handle. Puree in a blender or food processor with the other two cups of juice. Set aside.
In a large saucepan, heat butter or oil over medium heat. Add bell peppers, onion, and garlic. Saute until tender. Add coconut cream and pureed squash mixture. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer while adding curry paste and piloncillo sugar. Salt to taste. Add more curry paste, sugar, or salt to adjust flavor. Cook 5-10 minutes. Add chopped basil right before serving.
*Other sweet and dense winter squashes may be used. Try acorn squash, roasted sugar pumpkin, hubbard, castillo, or banana squash.
**Piloncillo is a dark, unrefined sugar that is usually shaped into cones and shrink-wrapped to retain moisture. Look for it in Hispanic stores. If you can’t find piloncillo, use raw or brown sugar.
What are your favorite pumpkin and winter squash varieties?