Natural Perspectives: Much ado about pumpkins

Pumpkin season is here.

Despite threats of a pumpkin shortage due to flooding in the Midwest, the local grocery stores stock a bounty of pumpkins. Many people use them for entryway decorations for Halloween, either whole or with faces carved into them. But Vic and I use them for food, especially pies.

People tend to forget that the original purpose of pumpkins was to eat them. Over the years people have gotten accustomed to using them for decorations. Or using them for punkin’ chunkin’ if you’re one of those people who are into gourd tossing.

Ten thousand years ago, squash and pumpkins were the first food crop domesticated by the aboriginal people of Central America. They didn’t have a domestic grain crop yet; recent studies indicate that corn wasn’t domesticated until 9,000 years ago.

Originally, Native Americans ate just the protein- and oil-rich seeds of gourds, as the thin rind of the gourds from which squash and pumpkins were developed was too hard and bitter to eat. But over time, the natives developed squash and pumpkins that had edible flesh.

Today, there are three species of what we call squash or pumpkins. The difference between a squash and a pumpkin is really hard to define.

What we call pumpkins are really the same species as summer squash, while some varieties of what we call winter squash are the same species as giant pumpkins. I’m going to try to make heads and tails out of some of those pumpkin and squash varieties.

Today’s Hubbard and Turk’s Turban winter squash varieties originated in the Andes. They are varieties in the species Cucurbita maxima. Other varieties of this species are giant pumpkins such as Atlantic Giant and Big Max. The folks at the community garden grew a couple of those giant pumpkins this year.

It was a lot of fun watching as these pumpkins have developed over the summer. One has turned orange but rotted at one end. The other has stayed a pale lemon yellow. I’m not sure what they weigh, but I would guess somewhere around a hundred pounds each.

Cushaw, Winter Crookneck, and butternut squashes, as well as Cheese pumpkins, originated in Mexico and are of the species Cucurbita moschata. These pumpkin varieties tend to have green or tan skins rather than orange skins.

Think about the tan color of a butternut squash versus the orange color of a jack-o-lantern pumpkin. You can find tan-skinned Cheese pumpkins for sale locally labeled as Cinderella or Fairy Tale pumpkins. In my opinion, cheese pumpkins don’t have as good a flavor as a sugar pumpkin or butternut squash, so I don’t cook with them.

Canned pumpkin is often made from butternut squash or a close relative.

For example, Libby’s canned pumpkin is made from a pumpkin variety called Dickinson. This squash has tan skin and orange flesh, and is in the species Cucurbita moschata, so it’s more closely related to a butternut squash than what we think of as pumpkin.

If you’re looking for canned pumpkin, Trader Joe’s has a good deal on canned organic pumpkin. Right now, it’s $1.99 a can. You can make two 8-inch pies out of a can of pumpkin.

Summer squash such as zucchini, yellow straight neck, yellow crookneck, and patty pan or scallop squash are all varieties of the squash species Cucurbita pepo. Some winter squash varieties, such as acorn and spaghetti squashes, also fall into that species.

Now here’s where it gets really confusing. Almost all of what we call pumpkins, varieties such as the Howden, Connecticut Field, New England Pie and Sugar pumpkins, are also Cucurbita pepo. So what we call pumpkins are really squash, and some of what we call squash are really pumpkins. But what’s in a name?

Scallop or patty pan squash, as well as straight neck and crookneck summer squash appeared in botanical illustrations from the late 1500s and early 1600s. It is likely that Native American growers had developed these popular summer squash varieties in pre-Columbian times.

When Europeans arrived in North America, they found the native peoples of the East Coast cultivating crops of corn, beans, and pumpkins or squash. The name squash derives from a word in the Algonquin language, askutasquash, which means “green thing that is eaten raw.”

The word pumpkin comes from the Greek word “pepon” which means large melon. That got changed to “pompon” by the French, which was corrupted to “pumpion” by the English. American colonists called the orange fruit of the New World “pumpkin.”

I wanted to make my own pumpkin pies from scratch this year, using a new-to-me variety called the Amish pie pumpkin. The pumpkins are supposed to grow up to 90 pounds, yet still be good for pies. I didn’t expect my pumpkins to get that big because I’m growing them here in coastal California, not the Midwest. Still, I had hoped for pumpkins that were a little larger than the two-pounders that I got.

I had counted on the pumpkins adding quite a bit to my total poundage of harvest this year, but it wasn’t to be. My heaviest pumpkin weighed only 3 lbs, 10 oz. Another pumpkin succumbed to rot before I got around to cooking it, leaving me with only two for pies. But I was able to get four cups of pumpkin puree from the two pumpkins, which is enough for four pies.

I processed my pumpkins last week, freezing half of the puree and making two 8-inch pies with the other half. Visit my blog at for an illustrated step-by-step procedure of how to do it, plus recipes.

As we near the end of October, I did a quick and dirty calculation of how much produce I’ve gotten from my gardens so far this year. As of Oct. 23, I had harvested 196 pounds of fruit and vegetables. I had originally set a goal of 300 pounds of produce for this year. I downgraded that goal to just equaling last year’s harvest of 224 pounds after rats and possums ate most of my fruit crop, and then the tomato and summer squash crops were disappointing.

I still have my crops of navel oranges, avocados, and yams to harvest, which should add quite a few more pounds to the total. If the cabbages and broccoli ripen before Christmas, and if the insects or night critters don’t eat them, I should reach my goal. If, if, if. I still have two months before the end of the year.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at