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pronounced: koo-KER-bit-uh MOSS-kuh-tuh
(Cucurbitaceae — the squash family)
common name: Pumpkin
Cucurbita is the Latin word for a gourd, and moschata means ‘musk-scented’, from the Italian word for musk, muschio. The pumpkin originated in central America, probably more than 4,000 years ago, and was introduced into North America as early as the 16th century. Various forms of pumpkins and squash were traditionally grown by the native American tribes in their ‘Three Sisters’ system of crops: maize, beans and squash were planted together, with the corn-stalk providing support for the climbing beans, and shade for the squash. The squash vines provided ground cover to limit weeds. The beans fixed nitrogen in the soil for all three crops. By the early 19th century, at least three varieties of pumpkin are known to have been produced commercially in North America, from seeds obtained from native Americans.
The diversity of pumpkins equals that of tomatoes. Golden Nugget is preferred for small gardens. For gardeners who want record-breakers, Atlantic Giant produces massive fruit. Jap suits the tropical north, while Butternut crops reliably everywhere. Beaudesert Blue and Queensland Blue are local varieties, and there is a variety Jarrahdale from Western Australia.
English visitors often joke about the Australian love of pumpkin as a food, pointing out that in the UK it is only fed to animals. This is true! Pumpkin-eating is mostly, though not entirely, confined to North and Central America and Australia. Most parts of the plant are edible. In Townsville during the Second World War, when vegetables were hard to come by, my mother sliced the leaf stems longitudinally and used them as a substitute for French beans.
As with all other members of the family, pumpkin flowers come in pollen-bearing male form, and the ovary-bearing female form, with both forms being present on the same plant. The flowers are short-lived, and often close by mid-morning. Native and honey bees are normally able to complete pollination, but sometimes ants harvest the pollen before this occurs. Many commercial growers use hand pollination to improve the fruit set.
When ripe, the pumpkin can be boiled, baked, steamed or roasted. Often it is made into pies and soup. Pumpkins that are still small and green can be eaten in the same way as zucchini. In the Middle East, pumpkin is used for sweet dishes, especially a delicacy known as halawa yaqtin. In South Asian countries, pumpkin is cooked with butter, sugar and spices in a dish called kadu ka halwa. In parts of China, the leaves are used as a green vegetable, and in soups. In Japan, small pumpkins are served in savoury dishes, including tempura. In Thailand, small pumpkins are steamed with custard inside and served as a dessert. In Italy pumpkin is sometimes used with cheeses as a savoury stuffing for ravioli. In some countries pumpkin is even used to flavour both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. All this makes the usual Australian roast or mashed pumpkin sound a bit dull!
Pumpkin seeds are a good source of magnesium, manganese, phosphorus and phytosterols, and are said to benefit the liver and increase immune response.
Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.
Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2009-2011, Nelly Bay 2016
Page last updated 24th December 2017