Science Thursday: Pumpkins

Happy Science Thursday! This week we’re talking about one of my favorite plantables, pumpkins!

He’s so cuuuute!!!

We will not, however, be talking about pumpkin spice. pumpkin spice goes on or with pumpkin, and so doesn’t contain any pumpkin, and so has no place here. #nopumpkinspice

Cultivation

Pumpkins are from the squash family, and are as such native to North America. They can actually be grown on all non-Antarctica continents, but we had them first. Pumpkins are a winter squash, meaning that they’re picked as a mature fruit late in the summer growing season, and they have a longer shelf life than “summer squash” like zucchini. They’re pretty easy to grow, too.

Because pumpkin seedlings are very sensitive to the weather, seeds should be planted after all possibly of frost has passed (around the end of March for PA). After that, pumpkins have no problem taking control. One year I thought it would be fun to plant pumpkins in my front yard gardens, and since the garden was mostly mulch I planted 12 seeds, thinking I would get one or two plants and it would be great. All 12 seeds took root. It was the hardest thing in the world to have to decide which of my little pumpkin babies would survive and which wouldn’t.

Once you have seedlings, you have to keep an eye on things, because the seedling will quickly become a vine, and you want to make sure the vine doesn’t go where you don’t want it or choke out other plants. Other than that, it’s a matter of waiting for cute little flowers to appear.

So pretty.

When flowers appear, and they’ll appear in abundance, you will need to start pollinating. If you live in a place with a lot of bees or butterflies, you might be able to leave it up to nature, but in most cases you’ll have to do it yourself. Don’t worry. It’s not as messy as animal husbandry. You have two kinds of flowers on your vine, male and female. The female flower has a green ball right beneath the bloom, where the male does not.

All you need to do is put the pollen from the male flower on the pistil of the female flower. People have varying ways of doing this, but I found that taking out the male stamen with a pair of tweezers and rubbing all over the pistil worked pretty well. Once your pumpkins start to grow, you can leave them be until you’re ready to pick them, or you can turn them so they don’t get a flat spot. I also recommend singing or talking to your little pumpkins, because it makes them happy and they grow better.

Eating

If growing pumpkins isn’t your thing (but seriously what’s wrong with you?) you can still enjoy them. Everything except the thick ropy part of the vine is edible, and most of it’s pretty good (I’ve never tried the leaves or flowers, but they’re pretty, so I assume they’re good).

The squishy pulp inside of the pumpkin is what goes into sweet pie filling (along with sweeter butternut squash), but you can grill up the rind if you’re into something more savory. As for the seeds, they can go either way. My mom and I roasted pumpkin seeds this weekend, and we did some with salt and some with honey and unrefined sugar. Candied pumpkin seeds is where it’s at!

If you roast the seeds without the white outer husk (which we didn’t do. Too much work.) you will have pumpkin seed oil as a byproduct. And here’s a fun little factoid for you: pumpkin seed oil is green! The oil is high in fatty acids, and supposedly improves prostate health.

The rest of the pumpkin is pretty healthy for you, too. The seeds are high in protein, magnesium, copper, and zinc (tasty metals) and the pulp and rind are high in good things like Vitamin A (helps your immune system, eyes, and skin), Vitamin C, and Potassium. Pumpkin is also very low in fat. 100 grams of raw pumpkin, you have 0.1 gram of fat. 100 grams is about the size of a stick of butter, half an apple, or two fried eggs (depending of the density, the volume can differ).

Pumpkin is even good for your pets. Canned pumpkin can help with intestinal problems such as constipation, diarrhea, and hairballs, and raw pumpkin is sometimes given to poultry to maintain egg production in the winter.

Fun

If growing or eating pumpkins aren’t your thing, there is still plenty of fun to be had with these winter squash. Because they have a substantial shelf-life, they make lovely fall decorations, carved or whole. If you’re creative and like a little bit of mess, carving Jack-o’-lanterns is for you! How detailed you get is up to you.

You could make your own herd!

For the more industrial, there is pumpkin chunking or liquid nitrogen. Pumpkin chunking is a competitive building competition, where teams or individuals build machines to launch pumpkins large distances. Immersing a pumpkin in liquid nitrogen for a couple of hours will not only make the pumpkin stone-like (and very cold), but if you wait until dark and smash the pumpkin (by dropping it off of a tall building and onto concrete, for instance) you should be able to witness luminescence when it shatters (pumpkin SMASH!).

And if after all of that you still haven’t found a reason to love pumpkins, then you’re not a real human and I can’t help you. I’m sorry.

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