BOTANICAL NAME: Cucurbita spp., for example C. maxima, C. pepo and C. moschata
COMMON NAMES: pumpkin, winter squash (USA)
ORIGIN: Central America and Southern USA
DESCRIPTION: a fast-growing annual vine producing abundant leaf-mass and large edible fruits.
- A particularly useful food plant. Can be cooked in sweet or savoury dishes – roast pumpkin and pumpkin soup are classics. The seeds are edible, containing good amounts of zinc among other nutrients; some cultivars have hullless seeds, making them easy to eat. Flowers are edible, shoots and young leaves can be added to stir-fries or steamed; and the whole vine can be chopped and slowcooked in soups and stews.
- Seeds are also used medicinally.
- Many cultivars can be stored for months.
- Cut into chunks, pumpkins make a great stockfeed for goats, cows and even chickens.
- Lush growth and spreading habit make the plant an excellent living mulch, shading the ground and suppressing competing plants; it is particularly useful under establishing fruit trees.
Pumpkins need plenty of water and have a high nutrient requirement. Otherwise they are very low maintenance and easy to grow. They can be planted into a pocket of compost, or mulched heavily. Watering is best done direct to the soil as wet leaves can make plants vulnerable to fungal diseases. There is a quite bewildering array of cultivars available: different shapes, sizes and colours, as well as big variations in flavour, sweetness and texture. Tougher skinned cultivars tend to keep better, but will be harder to cut. Very large-fruited cultivars can be fun to grow, but the fruit quality will be low. For those with less room, there are bush cultivars available, such as Golden Nugget, which fit more neatly into the vegie garden. Pumpkin vines can also be grown onto shed roofs, or up fences or established trees to save space. They can be used to create a shady summer area when grown on a trellis.
Pumpkins will grow in almost any climate and can be planted year round in warmer, frost-free areas. Dry months are better for growing in tropical areas as hot, wet weather can lead to fungal problems. In cool or frosty areas seeds can be started in spring in a greenhouse and transplanted out – a large pot should be used, as they will outgrow it rapidly! In other areas seed can be planted straight into the ground.
Seed is easy to save: scoop it out, wash it (soaking for a day helps) and ensure it is dry before storing. Pumpkins will cross-pollinate with other cultivars of the same species, so to keep a strain pure grow one cultivar of each species per year, or hand pollinate flowers and seal them against other pollen entering.