Pumpkins a minor crop with major history

First Posted: 1/15/2009

Since Halloween is just around the corner, it is only fitting that this column
be about pumpkins. When we think of pumpkins, some of us think about pies, but
others think about jack-o’-lanterns.

Although pumpkins are a minor crop in North Carolina, many farmers plant
between one and five acres as a source of additional income. It is estimated
that there are between 2,000 and 3,000 acres of pumpkins planted in North
Carolina each year.

We do not have exact figures about how many pumpkins are grown in Robeson
County either, because they are considered a minor crop here as well. We
estimate that approximately 100 acres of pumpkins are planted in this county
each year. Some local farmers plant several acres of pumpkins each year and
sell them at local markets for fall decorations. Other farmers, as well as home
gardeners, plant just a few plants in their gardens, so they will have fresh
pumpkins for pies during the holidays.

Some varieties of pumpkins, such as Mammoth Gold, are capable of yielding in
excess of 20,000 pounds per acre and have a retail value of 20 to 25 cents per
pound. This translates into a gross value of more than $4,000 per acre.

The popular Jack-be-little pumpkin that is used for decorating is not actually
a pumpkin. It is actually a gourd. In fact, pumpkins are not vegetables, they
are fruits.

Pumpkins can range in size from less than five pounds up to several hundred.
The largest pumpkin ever recorded in North Carolina was shown at the 2000 N.C.
State Fair. It weighed in at more than 856 pounds, and there were two other
pumpkins on the same vine weighing 755 pounds and 300 pounds! These pumpkins
were grown in Canton by Wallace Simmons. The largest pumpkin at the 2002 State
Fair weighed in at 652 pounds.

When the pilgrims first arrived in the new world, one of the many interesting
discoveries they made was that the Native American’s were using pumpkins for a
variety of purposes. They grew them for food many years before the European
explorers arrived. In fact, information about pumpkins dates back many
centuries. Archaeologists in Mexico discovered pumpkin fragments that date back
as far as 7,000 B.C.

The word pumpkin originates from the Greek word “pepon,” meaning “large melon.”
The word “pepon” was pronounced in different languages several ways before the
American colonists called it “pumpkin.” Early Americans would slice off the
pumpkin top; remove the seeds; fill it with milk, spices, and syrup; and bake
it for hours in hot ashes. Thus, we have the first version of pumpkin pie.
Settlers would also dry out slices of pumpkin and store them for later when
food was hard to find.

You may wonder where the term jack-o’-lantern came from. The term originated
from an Irish myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack.” According to the story,
Stingy Jack was so devious that he tricked the Devil on several different
occasions. When Jack died, God would not allow such an unsavory figure into
heaven. The Devil, upset by the tricks Jack had played on him, would not allow
him into Hell either. So Jack was sent off into the dark night with only a
burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved out turnip and
has been roaming the Earth with it ever since. The Irish began to refer to this
ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern” and then, simply, “jack-o’-lantern.”

In Ireland and Scotland, people began to make their own versions of Jack’s
lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them into
windows or near doors to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil
spirits. In England, large beets are used. Immigrants from these countries
brought the jack-o’-lantern tradition with them when they came to America. They
soon found that pumpkins, a fruit native to America, made perfect jack-o’-

Now that you know more about pumpkins and jack-o’-lanterns, you can share this
information with the trick-or-treaters who come to your door tonight. If you
are lucky, you will bore them so much they may never return again.

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