October means pumpkins in the minds of many Americans and rightly so. Pumpkins are cultivars (plants selected for specific characteristics and maintained by propagation) of Cucurbita pepo, and one of many winter squash varieties that are harvested around this time.
Pumpkins are indigenous to North America—squash seeds dating back to 7,000 BC have been unearthed in Mexico. Pumpkins are closely related to other winter squash. The term generally applies to round squash with smooth, slightly ribbed skin and an orange color, however cultivars of other colors, shapes and sizes are gaining in popularity here in the United States. Pumpkins are so popular that over 1.5 billion pounds are grown in this country each year.
In Yavapai County, pumpkins and other winter squash are planted between April and July to be harvested between September and December, weather permitting. Different varieties of pumpkins are grown for ornamental use and food. The pumpkins used for jack-o-lanterns, Connecticut Field pumpkins, are typically grown for that purpose and aren’t the best for eating. The best pumpkins for eating are strains of that same cultivar, but are considered “pie pumpkins” and tend to be much smaller and meatier. Cucurbita maxima are squash grown for their immense size and can weigh upwards of one ton.
Pumpkin is usually associated with desserts but can be used in a variety of savory dishes as well. In addition to pies, breads, muffins and other sweets, pumpkin is delicious in soups, roasted with other vegetables, mashed like potatoes, and as a ravioli filling. Pumpkin seeds, pepitas, are roasted and eaten as a snack or added to salads. Oil pressed from the seeds is a delicacy. The squash is an excellent source of vitamin A and a decent source of vitamin C. Pumpkin contains more potassium than a banana and is a good source of fiber. One exciting recipe to try this season: making soup right in a pumpkin. Simply cut out the top, remove seeds and placenta, place all soup ingredients inside, place the top back on and bake in the oven.