From pumpkin spice lattes to jack-o-lanterns, pumpkins have become a universal symbol of fall. Pumpkins also come from an enormously diverse plant family, Cucurbitaceae, which contains more than 100 genera and over 700 species. In the U.S., any round, orange squash is likely to be called a pumpkin, but the term “pumpkin” has no real botanical meaning. “Pumpkins” are actually squash, and, technically, a type of berry.
Knowing all that may have you pondering pumpkins. Since they are squash, are Halloween pumpkins safe to eat? What types of pumpkins taste the best? Which variety is best for canning? The Kemper Center for Home Gardening has all of your pumpkin questions covered.
Pumpkins are berries?
Botanically speaking, a pumpkin is a type a of berry, as are other species in the Cucurbitaceae family. These gourds are a type of berry called a “pepo,” referring to their hard, outer rind.
For botanists, fruit classification is based on how a flowering plant’s ovaries and other flowering structures are arranged, and how the fruit develops. It’s independent of what we typically refer to a berry, which is from the culinary perspective.
For example, botanically, eggplant, cucumbers, grapes, tomatoes, bananas, peppers, blueberries are all considered to be berries. But, strawberries, blackberries and raspberries botanically are NOT berries.
Pumpkins at the Patch
The pumpkins you most commonly see at picking patches are Cucurbita pepo. Over the years, this species has been bred to include a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. In fact, this species gives us acorn, spaghetti, and yellow squash in addition to carving pumpkins. Uncut carving pumpkins are safe to eat, but might not be your top choice for cooking. Since they’ve been bred for size, their flavor is often bland and their fibers stringy. Instead, try roasting the seeds and adding some of your favorite seasonings. Never eat any part of a pumpkin that’s been carved, or you’ll deal with bacteria, dirt and dust, and other little critters.
Cooking with pumpkins
For cooking your favorite pumpkin recipes, pie pumpkins or “sugar pumpkins” are your best bet. They’re smaller, sweeter, have a thicker rind and have less fibers, making them easier to work with.
Pumpkins can be used in many, many recipes. Popular options include baked goods like pies, breads, and cookies, as well as fall favorites like pumpkin butter and pumpkin soup. To cook a pumpkin, remove all the seeds and fiber and roast it in the oven. Blend it in a food processor to make a puree. Seeds of this variety can of course be roasted as well.
If you’re interested in canning, try varieties of Cucurbita moschata. This includes butternut squash, crookneck winter squash, and cheese pumpkins. Young flowers, leaves, shoot tips and seeds are also edible.
Grow your own
If you have enough space, you may try growing pumpkins in your yard. Pumpkins can be grown from seeds, and are best planted in the late spring, when temperatures have risen above 65. Pumpkins, and other squash, do best in full sun.
For an especially impressive decorative display next fall, try growing Cucurbita maxima. This species includes a variety of pumpkins — some that grow to more than 100 pounds. The species also includes a large and diverse collection of winter squashes in many colors, including blue, green, orange, and even multicolored.
For more information on home gardening, including seasonal tips, visit gardeninghelp.org.
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