Pumpkin - a truly multinational vegetable

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Pumpkins Image by Maxx Girr from PixabayPumpkins Image by Maxx Girr from PixabayIf you mention pumpkin to South Africans you will get various responses from our rainbow nation. For many it will conjure up thoughts of sweet “Pampoenkoekies” - South African pumpkin fritters with cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and sugar, with a drizzle of caramel sauce on top, or perhaps “Pumpkin Cake.” Others will dream of the mouth-watering “Kaddu Ka Halwa” or “Pumpkin Halwa” - a unique Indian pumpkin-based dessert made with almonds, cashews, pistachios, milk, and sugar.

No matter your preferred flavour, be it sweet or savoury, there is a pumpkin recipe out there for you, and because they are healthy, easy to grow, and still a relatively inexpensive vegetable, you really should start using more pumpkin.

Pumpkin is the quintessential autumn (or fall) vegetable, symbolizing harvest time in many western countries. However, they are also an integral part of many other cultures and festivals around the world, and even in places like China they’re linked to the mid-autumn festival, and are eaten in various forms. One of the most delicious recipes is “Fried Chinese Pumpkin Cake” made from steamed pumpkin and glutinous rice flour, and traditionally filled with red bean paste, but you could also try them with brown sugar centres at home.

Pumpkins belong to the gourd family of plants, which includes pumpkins, squash, baby marrow, and cucumber. They are believed to have originated in Central America over 7,500 years ago, and the oldest domesticated pumpkin seeds were found in the Oaxaca Highlands of Mexico. Pumpkins are one of the most ancient of domesticated crops, and archaeologists believe that pumpkins were first farmed in small settlements, together with sunflowers and beans.

These original pumpkins were small, hard and bitter, and less for bountiful harvests than for their durable exterior which was adapted to surviving harsh weather conditions. Despite their hard coating, these pumpkins were an integral part of the diet of the ancient Mexicans, and together with beans, chillies and corn, pumpkin remains one of the most important ingredients in Mexican cuisine.

A softer type of pumpkin was a staple in the diet of the Native American Indian tribes, and they cultivated it and roasted long strips over an open fire. They also used dried strips of the shell to weave into mats.  When the white settlers arrived in North America and tasted the pumpkins grown by the Indians, it quickly became a staple in their diets too, and today pumpkin is still used in a wide variety of recipes, from desserts, to stews and soups.

American Pumpkin Pie. Image by skeeze from PixabayAmerican Pumpkin Pie. Image by skeeze from PixabayThe origin of the classic American pumpkin pie is thought to have occurred when the colonists sliced off the pumpkin top, removed the seeds, and then filled it with cream, eggs, spices and honey, before putting the top back on and slowly baking it in the hot ashes of a dying fire. This tasted so good that it became commonplace, and eventually evolved into the traditional American pumpkin pie we know today with its pretty fluted pastry crust, and which remains an integral part of traditional Thanksgiving meals in both The United States and Canada. The pilgrims certainly had much to thank the pumpkin for, as corn and wheat crops were not always as dependable and as easy growing as the pumpkin, and its nutritious flesh undoubtedly kept them alive over many harsh winters.

Here is a poem from the era that tells it all.

For pottage and puddings and custards and pies

Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies,

We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,

If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon."

Pilgrim verse, circa 1633

Pumpkins for Halloween. Image by Robert Davis from PixabayPumpkins for Halloween. Image by Robert Davis from PixabayPumpkins are also essential around Halloween, to be carved into “Jack O' Lantern” decorations, and people have been making them for centuries. The practice originated from an Irish myth about a man nicknamed "Stingy Jack" who invited the Devil to have a drink with him but then didn't want to pay, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin so that Jack could pay for their drinks. The Devil obliged, but Stingy Jack kept the money in his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother him for one year, and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul. When the year was up, Stingy Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree's bark so that the Devil could not come down until he promised not to bother Jack for ten more years, which he did. However, soon afterwards Stingy Jack died, and God would not allow such an unsavoury figure into heaven, and the Devil kept his word and would not claim his soul either, or allow him into hell. Instead the Devil sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Having placed the coal into a carved out turnip, Stingy Jack has been roaming the earth and carrying it with him ever since.

The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as "Jack of the Lantern," and then, simply "Jack O' Lantern." In Ireland and Scotland, people began to make their own versions of Jack’s lanterns by carving scary faces into large beets or potatoes and placing them into windows or near doors to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits. Immigrants from these countries brought this tradition with them when they came to the United States, but soon discovered that pumpkins made perfect lanterns, and so the tradition of carving pumpkins at Halloween began. 

Day of the Dead - Mexico. Image by Vardan Sevan from PixabayDay of the Dead - Mexico. Image by Vardan Sevan from PixabayLike beans, chilies and corn, pumpkin is one of the most important ingredients in Mexican cuisine, and especially in autumn, one of the most vibrant times to be in Mexico City, because preparations for “Dia de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) are in full swing. Bustling morning markets sell bundles of marigolds bound for the celebration’s ritual offerings, and farmers hawk their prized “calabaza,” the Mexican word for pumpkin and squash. These squashes are not the same as the softer-skinned, smooth and bright orange Connecticut field pumpkins, which were originally cultivated by Native Americans. Instead, markets sell calabaza that can be bulbous and beige, round and green-striped, or bumpy and yellow with crooked necks. The pulp appears in savoury dishes like moles and tamales, and the seeds, are often just thrown on the griddle to be roasted and then salted.

Calabaza is even crystallized into hyper sweet, waxy confections that are artfully displayed in traditional candy store windows throughout Mexico City.  “Calabaza en tacha” – a dish that’s popular at The Day of the Dead festivities is simply prepared, starting with a pot of pumpkin and unrefined cane sugar, which is reduced into syrup. Guava and cinnamon sticks are added, and it’s all left to simmer for an hour, so the spiced syrup can slowly soak into the pumpkin flesh. When the calabaza is finished simmering, you’re left with this traditional Mexican dessert.

When the Spaniards came to the Yucatán, they were served a dish called “Papadzules” meaning ‘food for the lords,’ and consisting of corn tortillas dipped in a pumpkin seed sauce. They must have been impressed because they brought the nutritious calabaza back home with them. The pumpkin stored well and was therefore perfect for seafaring explorers from all over the world to bring back to their countries. For this reason, pumpkins have been grown for millennia in Africa, parts of Asia and the Americas, but strangely enough only appeared in Europe in the 16th century.

And so pumpkins spread throughout the world and diversified over several centuries into the wonderful varieties we know today, which are cultivars of a squash plant, most commonly of Cucurbita pepo, which is round with smooth, slightly ribbed skin, and is most often a deep yellow to orange in colour, with a thick shell containing the seeds and pulp. These pepo pumpkins generally weigh between 3 and 8 kg.

Giant Pumpkin. Image by skeeze from PixabayGiant Pumpkin. Image by skeeze from PixabayAnother species, Cucurbita maxima has the largest cultivars, with regular weights of over 34 kg! These large pumpkins fascinated gardeners and breeders alike, and they selected and grew them for size, and naturally started competing with each other to see who could grow the biggest pumpkin. This trend caught on quickly, and today giant pumpkin weigh-offs are serious business in many countries, attracting contestants from far and wide, and resulting in unbelievably large pumpkins.

Mathias Willemijns of Belgium set the current world record for heaviest pumpkin back in Oct. 2016 with one that weighed a whopping 2,624.6 pounds (1190.49 kg) according to the Guinness World Records. The Ohio Valley Giant Pumpkin Growers Association holds an annual Pumpkin Weigh-Off, and for 2019 the winning pumpkin was grown by Karl Haist, weighing in at 2,517.5 pounds (1141.92 kg) and setting a new American record. The current SA record is 613 kg, so we have a long way to go.

World champions, however, aren’t good for cooking and are usually used for livestock feed.

The word pumpkin originates from the word “pepon” which is Greek for ‘large melon’ or something ‘round and large.’ The French adapted this word to pompon, which the British changed to pumpion, and later to the American colonists it became known as pumpkin.

Botanical classification of pumpkin and squash can be complicated because there are 4 species of pumpkin that have produced many hybrids which vary greatly in size, colour and shape. There are 2 types of squash; summer squash and winter squash.

The name winter squash can be confusing because the plants are grown in summer but the fruit is harvested late and can be stored for winter use. Winter squash requires a long growing season of 14 to 20 weeks. Winter squash has less water than summer squash and a richer, nuttier taste.

Summer squashes include butternut, Hubbard, and gem squash, as well as patty pans and baby marrow, which are harvested when the fruit is immature.

Pumpkin Spice Latte. Image by Jill Wellington from PixabayPumpkin Spice Latte. Image by Jill Wellington from PixabayUses:

Today this multinational vegetable can be found growing in six continents around the world, with only Antarctica being unable to commercially produce pumpkins.

Commercially the demand for fresh specialty pumpkins continues to expand as consumers look for new and interesting variations. Pumpkin is used in many food products and is canned as pumpkin purée and pumpkin pie filling.  The seeds make delicious and healthy oil, and roasted and salted pumpkin seeds and hulled kernels, known as “pepitas” are becoming a popular and nutritious snack item.

Pumpkin-flavoured food and beverages, and even personal and household goods are becoming increasingly popular and are appearing in shops around the world, but especially in America, where pumpkin and pumpkin pie spice is included in so many products, including: Pumpkin Spice Pop-Tarts, Pumpkin Spice Coffee,  Pumpkin Spice Peanut Butter,  Pumpkin Spice English Muffins, Pumpkin Spice Pringles, Pumpkin Spice Beef Jerky, Pumpkin Spice Almonds, Pumpkin Spice Fettuccini, and Pumpkin Spice Pudding. Heck, it seems to go with anything, and is even available in scented soaps and lotions.

Health Benefits:

The colour of pumpkins derives from orange carotenoid pigments, including beta carotene. Because pumpkin is rich in beta-carotene, an important antioxidant which performs many important functions in the body, it will help to reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer as well as heart disease. Beta-carotene also protects against cataracts and night blindness.

Pumpkins are also rich in vitamins A, B and C, as well as calcium, potassium, magnesium, and phosphorus. They also contain significant amounts of protein and carbohydrates.

All squashes will help cleanse the blood, relieve acidity in the body and acidosis of the liver.

Farm workers still apply hot, mashed pumpkin over abscesses and boils, cuts and grazes, holding it in place with a pumpkin leaf and a bandage.

Pumpkin Bundt Cake. Image by pixel1 from PixabayPumpkin Bundt Cake. Image by pixel1 from PixabayIn the Kitchen:

Pumpkin seeds are rich in fats and proteins and can be deep fried or roasted and then salted and eaten in the same way as nuts. The flowers are also edible and taste delicious if stuffed with savoury rice and minced beef. The young leaves make a delicious vegetable if steamed and served with butter, lemon juice, salt and black pepper. The flesh can be boiled, baked or mashed and is added to soups and stews, as well as many sweet dishes.

There’s a world of pumpkin recipes on the interne - from Egypt’s version of pumpkin pie “Kar Assaly” (Egyptian Pumpkin Bechamel Pie) which is crestless, has plenty of cinnamon and sugar, and the gently cooked pumpkin is left in chunks with a layer of nuts and raisins in the middle, and is topped off with a creamy béchamel (white sauce) - to a traditional Brazilian dish called “Camarão na Moraga” (Shrimp Stuffed Pumpkin) where soft cheese is spread inside a pumpkin before fresh tomatoes, garlic, onions, and shrimp are added and stewed.

I found this wonderful website chowhound.com with a great article called “An International Look at Pumpkin: How It’s Prepared Around the World” and the recipes are inspiring, so click here, let your creative juices flow, and get cooking with pumpkin.

Companion Planting:

The Native Americans practiced companion planting when growing the 3 sisters of their region by, planting corn in rows, and when it had sprouted and grown a few centimetres, they mounded up soil around the base of the corn to plant beans and pumpkins. The corn stalk would act as a natural trellis for the bean vines, while the nitrogen in the roots of the beans fed the corn and pumpkins. The Pumpkin vines covering the soil helped to keep moisture in the soil, providing shade and shelter for the shallow roots of the corn. Companion planting is often no more than common sense, and if you have space in your vegetable garden for the 3 sisters, why not give this method a try.

Squash grows well with basil, onions and runner beans, and planting marjoram and garlic chives close to squash will help to keep it pest free. Brightly coloured flowers like petunias are perfect companion plants for squash, acting as a tonic plant, and it also grows well close to flowers like marigolds and nasturtiums. However, pumpkin and squash do not enjoy growing close to potatoes.

Pumpkin Baby 'Jack Be Little' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaPumpkin Baby 'Jack Be Little' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaCultivation and Harvesting:

Pumpkin and squash are easy to grow warm season crops which are sown in spring to early summer in cold regions, and in warm regions successive sowings can be made until autumn. All varieties grow quickly in full sun and can be harvested for a long period. The plants are usually large trailing vines with hairy green leaves that need plenty of space to grow, but new hybrid seeds are available that produce more compact plants and fruits.

Pumpkins and squash require full sun and a rich soil which drains well, so prepare your beds thoroughly, adding lots of compost and some mature manure. Make mounds of soil about 1m apart, depending on the variety, and add a dressing of organic 2:3:2. Plant the seed directly into the mounds, and sow a few seeds into each mound. Once the seedlings are growing thin them out, leaving only one or two of the strongest. Do not overwater the beds until the seeds germinate, and thereafter water regularly, especially in hot weather. When the plants start flowering, feed them occasionally with an organic 3:1:5 fertiliser and mulch the beds to conserve moisture and to keep the roots cool.

Small fruits like baby marrow and patty pans must be harvested regularly, when they are still small and succulent. Pumpkins are harvested when they are fully mature and need a long growing season of about 14 to 20 weeks to fully mature, and remember that the larger fruiting varieties will take even longer to mature than smaller hybrids. Large fruits can be harvested for storage over winter when they are fully mature and the plants die down in late summer. Harvest only when the fruit stalk is dry enough to snap off easily. Store in a cool, airy place, and to prevent spoilage, select only unblemished fruits for storage.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

In overcast weather when the bees are less active fruit production may be poor, you can pollinate the female flowers by hand. Female flowers are easily identified by the small bulge at the bottom of the flower that will develop into the fruit. Pick the male flowers and remove the petals so that it is easy to rub the male anthers onto the stigma of the female plant.

Watering at soil level and ensuring that the leaves are totally dry before nightfall will help prevent fungal attacks like powdery mildew and rust. Also, watch out for aphids and fruit fly.


The information contained within this website is for educational purposes only, documenting the traditional uses of specific plants as recorded through history. Always seek advice from a medical practitioner before starting a home treatment programme.