It’s a rare fruit that can fit in the palm of your hand or grace your table with colorful aplomb and also grow to the size of a small car. But such is the pumpkin. Our long Northwest days are a dream for growing the embodiment of Americana and Halloween.
Evoking American farm life and family outings in the crisp fall air, pumpkins are among the most compelling tools farmers have to lure their urban customers into the countryside. “It has become quite a draw,” says Bob Hulbert, whose Dugualla Bay Farms is a short drive north of Oak Harbor. “In the last two years I’ve had more business in October than I did in June with strawberries.”
A member of the family Cucurbitaceae, the pumpkin has some interesting relatives: the cucumber, the watermelon, and the loofa among them. According to WSU vegetable specialist Carol Miles, there are wild cucurbits distributed around the world, but the pumpkin itself is native to the Americas.
Some of the oldest evidence of pumpkin consumption has been found in archaeological digs in the southwest and Mexico dating to 5000 B.C. and earlier. The gourd has spent some time in Europe, where it both worked its way into cuisines there and earned its name, derived from the ancient Greek word for melon: pepon. Still in many ways, it’s particularly American in origin and cultural significance. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Feathertop, the title character of a short story, was a bewitched scarecrow with a “withered and somewhat shriveled pumpkin” for a head.
Over a season of up to 150 days, the vigorous pumpkin plants tangle out their long prickly vines as far as 30 feet. They send out secondary roots and spread broad leaves, part of nature’s design to augment the plant’s ability to produce and sustain its fruit, says Miles.
This fall, in addition to riding the hay wagon and wandering the corn maze, people can visit Hulbert’s six acres of pumpkins with wheelbarrows and handpick their specimens to take home. It’s a fairly easy crop to grow, says Hulbert. Disease and insects aren’t major issues. The scariest question is will they turn orange in time for harvest. “Out here on Whidbey Island with our cool sea breezes, we sometimes don’t get the heat units required to get them to turn,” he says. This year, because of the cool spring, he planted several smaller varieties that turn orange sooner. He still has his big Fat Jacks, he says, but people will also see some other varieties including the rouge, the stonewall, the wee-be-little, and cotton candy (which turn white).
The farms on Green Bluff, the little agricultural plateau northeast of Spokane, draw thousands during the fall harvest season, which starts the last two weeks of September and runs through Halloween. Todd Beck ’96, a second-generation Green Bluff farmer, runs Harvest House. One of the main attractions, besides the apples from their 40-acre farm, is the Becks’ Pumpkin Land, a space filled nightly with freshly picked pumpkins delivered from Sunny Farms in Othello, Washington.
Years ago, Beck did try growing pumpkins on-site at the farm, but quickly discovered that “pumpkin fields are prickly, thorny, and dirty.” Not ideal for five-year-olds who tend to grab leaves and vines, he says.
While Pumpkin Land has “a few Cinderellas and a few ghost pumpkins,” what most people still want is that classic Jack-o-Lantern, says Beck. “And the bigger, the better.” They usually weigh between 15 and 40 pounds, and most people don’t buy just one, he says, “They get three, and four, and five.”
People may come for the pumpkins, but they eagerly cue up for the Beck family’s pumpkin doughnuts. Although Beck will allow that the fried cake treats contain pumpkin and cinnamon, the rest “is a secret. I won’t give that out.” And on busy days, he has to limit his sales to one dozen per customer.
Most of the field pumpkins grown for Halloween are great for carving, but not for eating. To make the large decorative varieties, pumpkins are crossed with certain large squash like the hubbard (Curcubita maxima) to enhance the size. When it comes to this class of pumpkin, the key thing it’s bred for is the handle, or stem, says vegetable specialist Miles. “It has to stay on. It has to be a certain length,” she says.
“But if you look at a seed catalog, you see there are so many different and interesting pumpkins out there, many of them edible,” she says as she pulls out her Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog and starts turning the pages. “You’ve got all these shapes and sizes.” She lingers over a golden orange variety, and then points to another that’s a deep burnt orange. “Here’s the Cinderella,” she says. It’s squat and round like the drawing in the fairy tale. Then she flips the page. “These are real popular, the warties.” And then there are the ghosts, which are white, and the Long Island cheese—which looks like a wheel of cheese.
If you are going to go to the trouble of growing your own pumpkin, “you might as well be able to eat it,” says Miles. She likes the Jack-be-Littles (Cucurbita pepo), which people often use as decoration. “I also grow a little winter squash you can eat,” she says. They’re sweet dumplings, a classic pumpkin shape, only tiny and with dark green ridges. “I think they’re great eating.”
In her vegetable trials in Skagit Valley and Central Washington, Miles tries new pumpkin varieties and techniques to help farmers throughout Washington enhance their growing seasons, improve their yields, and look for new qualities. Miles notes that the pumpkin that comes in a can and is mostly destined for pies is actually a type of butternut squash (Cucurbita moschata). It’s bred so it doesn’t have the waist in the middle like the classic butternut, she says. The perfect oblong shape makes it easier to machine peel in processing.
The typical pumpkin grows green and stays green until sometime in late August or early September when it ripens and the rind hardens. If there’s a strong frost, the vines will die and if your pumpkin hasn’t already cured, it’s too late. A pumpkin picked before it has matured and turned color will not ripen. It’s best to remove the mature pumpkin from the vine with a sharp knife or pruning shears. An intact stem will help it keep from rotting, says Miles. And you want to get it out of the fields before the temperature is regularly below 40. A strong chill will act like a bruise below the pumpkin’s skin. It’s often a major cause of post-harvest loss, she says.
Pumpkins can be stored in a dry space like a garage or basement at 50 to 55 degrees. They will stay fresh for several months.
This is a recipe that editor Tim Steury cooked up recently for a WSM staff meeting. The rich tastes of pumpkin, ginger, and molasses are balanced by the delicate texture of the muffin. The walnuts toast up during baking. Serve with coffee or tea.
1-3/4 cups flour
1 cup pumpkin
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup molasses
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 cup butter melted and cooled
1/2 cup finely chopped candied ginger
1 tsp. powdered ginger
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 400°F. Grease or line a 12-cup muffin pan.
Whisk together dry ingredients in a bowl.
In another bowl beat egg lightly and then mix in melted butter and pumpkin.
Stir dry ingredients into wet ingredients until just blended. Fold in ginger and walnuts.
Spoon into muffin pan and bake for 15 minutes. Test with toothpick.
How to process a pie pumpkin
Cut a medium-sized (four-pound) pie pumpkin in half and scrape out the strings and seeds. Remove the stem. Place the pumpkin pieces face down on a cookie sheet, sprinkle with about a quarter cup of water, and cover tightly with foil.
Bake in a preheated 400 degree oven for about an hour or until a paring knife slides easily into the skin. Cool slightly. Scoop cooked pumpkin out of the skin and puree in a blender. Makes 1-1/2 cups.