On our last trip to Indiana (over the Thanksgiving Holiday), I took a ride through the countryside with my friend Ronnie.We saw several interesting things, including this view from a hill overlooking a small Southern Indiana town. Would anyone care to guess what makes the hillsides in the distance such a nice, bright orange?
If you deduced the orange color must be from a field of pumpkins, you are right. However, the term “pumpkin” can be used to denote several types of cultivated plants in the family Cucurbitaceae and the genus Cucurbita. This genus originated in Central and South America, and an amazing variety of cultivated plants have been produced by selection and intercrossing. Many of these are varieties of the species Cucurbita pepo including the types we call summer squasth, winter squash, acorn squash, yellow squash, crook-neck squash, zucchini, spaghetti squash, pattypan squash, and many other types. Some of these can be seen in the photograph below, which I took at a roadside stand in North Georgia. Remember these are all varieties of C. pepo, and all can be intercrossed to produce yet more varieties. And C. pepo is not there only species used, C. moschata also produces fruits called pumpkins. In fact, I would guess that the pumpkins seen in the field above are a cultivar of C. moschata, and, since they are in the field long after the time when they would be picked for ornamental purposes, they are being grown for processing.
The story of Jack o lanterns is an interesting one. Many authorities believe that the custom of carving vegetables into grotesque faces originated in Ireland. Of course, no pumpkins were available to such carvers, so they used turnips (Brassica rapa var. rapa) or related plants such as rutabaga, or mangelwurzal. The idea was the same, namely to ward off evil spirits.
When Europeans arrived in the New World, they encountered pumpkins being grown by the native peoples, and they soon realized these produce Jack o Lantern superior to turnips. Nowadays, of course most Jack o Lanterns are produced from pumpkins, even in Ireland.