The Opinionated Gardener: Of pumpkins and pagan rituals

13 mins read

Pumpkins and Halloween go hand in hand, but that wasn’t always the case. Before there was Halloween, before there were Jack O’Lanterns, there were Celtic priests aka Druids who built sacrificial bon(e) fires when the harvest was in, the darkness was growing, and the boundary between the living and the dead was dissolving.

The fires were not only to placate Samhain, the God of the Dead, and ward off the evil spirits roaming the land, they were also to assure the return of the sun. The feast of Samhain was celebrated November 1. The fires burned all through the winter until the return of the sun, celebrated at the beginning of the summer (May 1) during the feast of Beltaine.

When Christianity spread into Celtic lands in the 7th century, the Church co-opted the feast of Samhain replacing the evil spirits with saints and renaming the holiday “All Saints Day.” The night before, October 31, became “All Hallow’ Eve.” One can assume the sacrificial bon(e) fires were banished but not necessarily extinguished.

Or that they were diminished and transformed into the lantern of the Irish folktale about a blacksmith named “Jack” who sold his soul to the devil and was denied, after death, not only entrance into heaven but into hell as well. But not before the devil gave Jack a single ember to light his way through the dark. Jack is said to have placed the ember inside a hollowed-out turnip to keep it glowing longer as he roamed the countryside.

Howden pumpkins are the standard for Jack O’Lanterns.

When the Irish arrived in America in the middle of the 19th century during the potato famine, they are said to have taken one look at the pumpkin and with its rich orange color, ample cavity and carvable face and swiftly adopted it. Jack O’Lanterns, complete with candlelit fiendish faces,now stand sentinel on our porches on All Hallow’s Eve warding off the evil spirits lurking out there in this time of deepening darkness.

Jack O’ Lanterns

Howden. C. pepo.* Howden has set the standard for large round Jack O’Lanterns for years. According to Fedco Seeds, it was rated the most popular pumpkin in an informal survey of growers attending the 2004 Annual Meeting of the Maine Vegetable and Small Fruit Growers Association. It typically weighs 20-35 pounds. Developed by John Howden of Massachusetts in the early 1970s, it’s said to be “an improved version” of the Connecticut Field pumpkin, which was grown by Native Americans and was a staple of 19th century seed catalogues.

Rouge Vif d’Etampes. C. maxima.* This is the pumpkin that Cinderella’s fairy godmother turned into a coach in the well known fairy tale and, as such, is known as the “Cinderella Pumpkin.” It is grown for its deep burnt red orange skin and distinctive ribbing and not for its less than hearty flavor. The pumpkins are flat, quite variable in size, ranging from about 7 pounds to upwards of 30 pounds and make great decorative Jack O’ Lanterns. It was introduced by Burpee Seed Company in 1883 but has been popular in France where it was widely grown since the early 1800s.

Racer. C. pepo.* This is a fairly new kid on the block, bred by Johnny’s Selected Seeds over in Albion. Founder Rob Johnston told The Opinionated Gardener that of all Jack O’Lanterns in his catalogue, “Racer” was his favorite because it was really early (only 85 days), could be grown anywhere, was beautiful and had great looking ribs (Jack O’Lanterns are “fashion contests,” says Johnston), had a big, dark green handle and was of a medium size (12-16 pounds).

Big Max. C. maxima.* This is the Jack O’Lantern that is grown for the “Great Pumpkin Weigh In” at Robin’s Flower Pot in Farmington. These are big pumpkins. According to Fedco’s catalogue, they typically weigh 50-100 pounds. According to Robin, last year’s winner, grown by Rilly and Xavier Romanoski of Strong, weighed 98 pounds! Big Max has a long growing season, so contestants are each given three seedlings at the end of May to start with. (See Resources and Events)

*Pumpkins belong to the family Cucurbitaceae, which also includes cucumbers, squash and melons. Most pumpkins are of the variety Cucurbita pepo which also includes summer squash and a few winter squash such as Acorn. Pepo is distinguished with a five-sided stem. Most winter squash are of the variety Cucurbita maxima which includes Buttercup and Sunshine. The use of the term “winter” and “summer” is cultural, not botanical.

Scarlet Kabocha “Sunshine” (F1) on the vine.

Breeding ‘Sunshine’

The Opinionated Gardener grew the winter squash “Sunshine” for the first time this summer. The Fedco Catalogue that said Sunshine was “one of Rob Johnston’s (Johnny’s Selected Seeds) best.” It promised flesh that was “dry yet tender, meaty yet sweet, with real substance.”

And best of all, it showed a squash with skin that was crimson orange – not bland tan as in Butternut or agreeable green as in Buttercup but crimson orange, as in Red Kuri. Curious to learn how this new variety came into being, The Opinionated Gardener called Johnston and learned that:

It’s a Japanese variety of winter squash known as a Kabocha and is a member of the species Cucurbita maxima, along with the Hubbard and Buttercup squashes. In fact, it is closely related to the Buttercup. Johnston says there have always been orange varieties of Kabocha but they weren’t popular because they didn’t have a high “eating quality” i.e. they were “low in dry matter (watery) and sugar content (tasteless).”

It took Johnston almost 20 years to produce “Sunshine.” He began the mating and selection process of breeding in the ‘70s crossing two orange Kabocha’s (a “Red Kuri” with a “Gold Nugget”) to get a bright-red, semi-bush plant. (Bush plants take up less space.) Then in the ‘80s he crossed a desirable offspring of the two parents with “Home Delite,” a green Kabocha that Johnston says has “high eating quality” (dry and sweet).

The result of the multitude of hand-pollinated crosses carried out in Albion was the sweet, dry, 95 days to maturity, 3-5 pound “Sunshine” that the O.G. direct seeded last spring. While it was chosen as an All American Selection winner in 1999, it took three more years for Johnny’s to produce enough seeds to bring it to market, where it can now be found in Johnny’s and Fedco’s catalogues.

When it comes to taste, Johnston says there is a peak time for each squash variety. Normally, a squash needs time in storage to reach its peak sugar content as the complex starches break down into simple sugars. With “Sunshine,” Johnston says you need not wait.“ You can eat it right out of the garden and keep it through Thanksgiving but October is the prime time for eating. After that it gets watery.

Johnston has also bred three other Kabocha including a grey Kabocha called “Confection,” which after a few weeks of curing in storage, he says results in an outstanding sweetness and texture.

The O.G. is thinking of trying “Red Warty Thing” and “Sunspot next year. She came across them on the internet at

Curing and Storing

While a light frost will not hurt your squash, it’s time to think about harvesting your squash before a killer frost, says Dave Fuller of Cooperative Extension, who provided the following seasonal tips:

• There wasn’t a lot of heat this summer for heat loving crops, so there may be problems for those requiring a long growing season, like Butternut (105 days). Squash and pumpkins do not continue to mature after they have been picked. There is nothing as tasteless and watery as immature squash. To ensure maturity start with seedlings, black plastic and hooped covers.

• If your thumbnail makes a dent in the skin, it’s mature, i.e. it’s ready for picking. Other signs of maturity are a dry “corky” looking stem and the once shiny “juvenile skin” should now have a dull, dry look. Keep the squash on the vine as long as possible; cover at night if necessary if a light frost is predicted.

• When the fruit is mature, cut the stem at least two inches from the fruit. There appears to be differences of opinion about the value of “curing” in a warm dry place to toughen the skins and decrease the water content of the flesh before storing in cool dry place. Some say curing prolongs storage, others (researchers at Cornell) say it doesn’t make a difference.

• As a general guideline Buttercup stores well up to two to three months, three to four months for Acorn and five to six months for Butternut. Storage should be in a cool (50 to 60 degrees) dry (50 to 70 percent humidity) place. The lower temperature will slow the respiratory rate of the squash, slowing down decay. 


For a good read on breeding squash, pumpkins, and tomatoes at the University of New Hampshire: UNH Plant Breeder Brent Loy at

Editor’s note: This Opinionated Gardener’s column originally ran one year ago in the printed version of the Daily Bulldog. It’s a favorite of ours and we wanted to share it once more as we move through pumpkin time.

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