It might seem hard to believe but before Europeans discovered America, pumpkins were unknown in the old world. The familiar orange gourd-like squashes are native to North America. They belong to the Cucurbitacea family, which includes cucumbers, honeydew melons, cantaloupe, watermelons and zucchini.  The oldest pumpkin seeds discovered date back to 5500 BC and were found in Mexico—so the people of the Americas have been planting and harvesting pumpkins for a long time.  This makes perfect sense since pumpkins are low in calories but high in fiber, Vitamin A, the B vitamins, potassium, protein, and iron.

Today pumpkins are a huge agribusiness and US farmers alone grow more than 1.5 billion pounds worth (which is about the equivalent mass of eight aircraft carriers—although the pumpkins would be less handy in a naval engagement). Annual contests are held around the country to see who can grow the largest pumpkin—a record currently held by Chris Steven’s 821 kilogram (1,810 pound) monster pumpkin grown in Minnesota in 2010. Ninety five percent of canned pumpkin puree is grown in Illinois, the home of Libby’s (a giant vegetable canning company currently owned by Nestlé, the world’s most profitable company in 2011).  Strangely the pumpkins canned by Libby’s are a sort of buff colored variety which look very different than the orange jack-o-lantern pumpkins which are sold at produce-stands.

A field of commercial pumpkins in Illinois

Speaking of jack-o-lanterns the tradition of carving faces in vegetable to ward off evil spirits goes far back into the depths of medieval Irish history, however since pumpkins were unknown in Ireland until the 16th century such face-lanterns were originally carved out of turnip, mangel-wurzel, or swede.  It was not until the nineteenth century that such lanterns acquired their name and came to be associated with Halloween.

(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Since I like to write about colors as well as farming, there is a handsome medium orange color named pumpkin, which, as you can imagine, is a staple hue for plastics and confections manufacturers as October and November roll around.