Pumpkins, squash and gourds have become more than just vessels to make jack-o’-lanterns. They are now the centerpiece for fall decorations. And autumn is right behind Christmas as the season for holiday decor.
When it comes to the fall centerpiece, here’s what to know. All pumpkins are squash, but not all gourds and squash are pumpkins. Confusing?
Pumpkins are any squash large, round and orange. If they are not round and are other colors or shapes, then they are called squash or gourd. Plant breeders looking for the unusual now have white, green, bi-color and varying shades of orange pumpkins.
Long, skinny, crooked, crinkled and covered with warts — no matter the color or shape, gourds make the season even more festive. Sizes range from that of a baseball to a small car.
Native to Central America, pumpkins in the United States can be traced back to colonial times when they were used as pie “crust.” Colonists learned the value of this food source.
They cut the top off, scooped out the seeds, and filled the squash with milk, honey and other spices. The whole pumpkin was then roasted in hot coals, thus creating the first pumpkin pie. The seeds were roasted as a food source and even used as a source of medicine.
Picking the right pumpkin is a personal preference in many ways, as beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Round, squat, oblong, without scratches or with: They all have their own character. Success in selecting a pumpkin is not about the shape but the initial quality of keeping it fresh until Thanksgiving.
When choosing a pumpkin, look closely at the flesh of the orb. Avoid any pumpkins that have cracks or splits. Gently squeeze or press your fingers into the fruit. Pay close attention to the blossom end, or bottom, and around the stem. A fresh pumpkin should be solid to the touch.
Avoid ones that have soft spots or sunken areas, as decay has already set in.
Holding or carrying a pumpkin should be done with care. Avoid the temptation to carry the pumpkin by the stem. The stem is not a built-in handle.
Once the stem breaks off, pumpkin decay is not far behind. The stem’s connection to the pumpkin is not strong enough to support the weight of the fruit. Instead, although more awkward, grasp the orange globe and carry it from the bottom.
Pumpkins store best under cooler conditions, but either in the home or outdoors, they will keep for several months. However, hard freezes late in the season will damage pumpkins outdoors, causing them to turn to mush.
Some will recommend wiping the fruit off with a solution of bleach water to reduce rot and decay. This usually is not necessary.
Pumpkin picking is a great family activity and a fun way to celebrate the season. Local pumpkin patches make a great and safe activity.
Like picking the perfect Christmas tree, a trip to the pumpkin patch creates lasting family memories. Search out the pumpkin that you will enjoy. No matter the size, shape or color, they all add a festive touch.
Dennis Patton is a horticulture agent with Kansas State University Research and Extension. Have a question for him or other university extension experts? Email them to email@example.com.