Halloween sees an unusual proliferation in the supermarkets. The space normally devoted to potatoes or apples becomes filled with the bright orange fruit of the pumpkin. The term pumpkin can often be used to refer to the large orange varieties of cucurbita pepo, popular for carving for lanterns at halloween. It is sometimes used to refer to other winter squash which can be varieties of cucurbita moschata, maxima, ficifolia, or even a hybrid, as squash are very promiscuous.
The tradition of carving lanterns for halloween does not originate in North America as some may claim, but has been a long-held tradition of the British Isles. Halloween as we know it (or All-Hallows-Eve) is the christianised form of the old Celtic festival of Samhain. This festival signified the end of the light part of the year, and our movement in to the dark half. This meant the divisions between the earthly world and the spirit world were at their most delicate, so people dressed as ghouls, lit bonfires and carved grotesque ‘jack-o-lanterns’ to scare away malevolent spirits. The lanterns would originally be carved from turnips to represent ‘Stingy Jack’.
Stingy Jack was a famous drunkard who was visited by the devil in search of his soul. Jack was no fool, and made one last request in return for his soul; a good drink. Jack and the devil drank heavily, but when it came to time to pay, Jack had no money so he suggested that the devil turned himself into a silver coin. Jack threw the coin in his pocket, next to a crucifix which prevented the devil from changing back. Jack said he would release the devil in return for ten years freedom, which the devil had to grant. Ten years passed and the devil returned. This time Jack convinced the devil that as his last request he would like an apple from the tree in his garden. Strangely, given Jack’s track record, the devil agreed, but no sooner was it up the tree than Jack surrounded it with crucifixes, stranding the devil in the tree. Jack bargained that he would let the devil down if he agreed that Jack would never be taken to hell, and the devil begrudgingly agreed. When Jack’s time came ( a bit early from all his drinking) he was barred entry from heaven for his lifetime of drinking, gambling and trickery. When he tried at the gates of hell he was barred too, so was condemned from that day onward, to walk the earth, between the planes of good and evil, with only an ember from the fires of hell inside a hollow turnip lantern to light his way. The pumpkin is a far easier lantern to carve than a turnip (believe me, as a child we had to make do with turnips), and it has since become adopted as the symbol of the festival.
Although these pumpkins are technically ‘edible’, after years of selecting for bigger, rounder, more orange fruit with a larger cavity, the flavour and nutrition has unfortunately been bred out of these squash. They are now exclusively grown for their ornamental value. The pumpkin used to make the pumpkin pie beloved of Americans at Thanksgiving is actually more closely related to the butternut squash. These have a much higher sugar and nutrient content, and contain less water, so your pie will be dense and firm, rather than watery with a soggy bottom. I have grown lots of different varieties, but some of my favourite culinary squash for flavour are ‘Crown Prince’, ‘Kabocha’, ‘Buttercup’, ‘Marina di Chioggia’ and the unusual butternut ‘Barbara’. This variety originally comes from a South American strain. They grow prolifically in the UK and when they are ripe they are striped green, like a watermelon, with an even higher sugar content than the pale-brown types. If you have ever purchased the pre-prepared butternut squash, it will probably have come from one of these green butternuts as they are now favoured by the supermarkets due to their improved taste.
Pumpkins and squash are probably one of the most cosmopolitan of crops. They are thought to have first been cultivated in Mexico around 9000 years ago but have since moved all around the world and you are likely to find them growing in almost every country. The spiritual home of the pumpkin is still North America where there is a huge diversity of forms and shapes. Pumpkins were grown as one of the principle crops in the Iroquois ‘Three sisters’ system, alongside corn and beans. The corn provides a natural pole for the beans to climb up, the nitrogen-fixing roots of the beans provide fertility for the pumpkin and corn, and the pumpkin provides ground-cover to reduce the evaporation of water. It is a clever way to maximise the calorific product from an area of ground, but choosing the right varieties is essential, as many modern varieties have been bred to be more suited to growing in a monoculture. I have had a go at growing this way myself, with mixed results. Whilst none of the individual crops produced quite as much as I would normally expect when grown separately, the bed did overall produce a substantial amount compared to what I would have got if I only planted one of the crops.
If you are growing squash in a more conventional system there are a few things to be aware of. Squash like fertile soils with plenty of organic matter as they need plenty of nutrition and water whilst growing. They need space, as if they are planted too densely, they will produce leaves to compete for light and fruit production will be delayed. Drought, excessive watering and temperature fluctuation will all cause flowers to abort and a poor ‘set’ of fruit. Typically the first eight buds that develop on a plant will all be male, and the first female flowers will only open around a week after the male flowers have started. The pollen needs to be transferred (by a bee or by hand) from the male to female flowers for a fruit to form. The fruit can take from 60 to 110 days to ripen, and its high sugar content makes it prone to attack from animals. Many growers lift the fruit slightly off the ground, so the sun can ripen all sides evenly. The growing season will often be cut short at the end of the year by mildew. Feeds high in phosphite can help to alleviate some symptoms, but it is almost the inevitable end for the plants. When harvesting the fruit always make sure to cut the vine, not the stalk of the squash, as this will reduce the chance of bacteria entering the fruit and causing rots in storage. The pumpkins need a few weeks curing in a warm sunny place so the skin starts to harden before they are placed into storage. Many squash actually experience an increase in the concentration of sugars in the flesh during storage as moisture is lost, and starch is converted to sugar.
The growing of giant pumpkins has become something of a sport in recent years. This year Matthew Oliver of RHS Hyde hall managed to break the record for an outdoor grown pumpkin in the UK with a fruit that weighed in at a whopping 605Kg though this is still a little way from the world record of 1054kg held since 2014 by Beni Meier from Switzerland. Whilst these pumpkins are essentially inedible, the seeds can sell for huge prices to other growers who also want to grow a giant.
Squash are a versatile and diverse crop, that store well through the winter. With a bit of care and planning you can be enjoying them long into the New Year, and they needn’t be just for halloween.