A pumpkin is actually a gourd-like squash of the genus Cucurbita and of the family Cucurbitaceae (that also includes Gourds). The many different varieties of Pumpkins comprise the 4 species: Cucurbita pepo, Cucurbita mixta, Cucurbita maxima, and Cucurbita moschata.
Typical pumpkins generally weigh 10 to 20 lbs, but there are the Giant pumpkins that can reach several hundred pounds (or more), as well as the miniature novelty pumpkins that are as small as ½ to 2 lbs. Pumpkins vary greatly in shape, ranging from oblate to oblong. Their rind is usually smooth and lightly ribbed. Most pumpkins are orange or yellow, but there are varieties in colors such as dark green, pale green, orange-yellow, white, red and gray.
Pumpkins are monoecious (having both male and female flowers on the same plant). They are a warm-weather crop usually planted in June or July – depending on location in the U.S. The specific conditions necessary for growing pumpkins require soil that holds water well and that the soil temperature is at least 60 °F. Once the seedlings are up and growing, pumpkins are rather hardy, and even if many leaves and portions of the vine are removed or damaged, the plant can quickly establish secondary vines to replace what was removed.
Pumpkins are very versatile in their uses for cooking. Most parts of the pumpkin are edible, including the fleshy meat inside its outer shell, the seeds, and even the flowers. When ripe, the pumpkin meat can be boiled, baked, steamed, or roasted. Obviously, it is the main ingredient in the traditional Thanksgiving pie, but pumpkin is also used in soups and purees. Pumpkins that are still small and green may be eaten the same way as squash or zucchini. The main nutrients of pumpkins are lutein and carotene – the latter generates vitamin A in the body.
In the southwestern United States and in Mexico, the flowers of pumpkins and squash are popular as a food item and widely available. They make a nice garnish for various recipes, and they are a tasty delicacy when covered with a batter and then fried in oil.
The seeds of pumpkins are also edible and healthy. They are small and flat, covered by a white husk in most pumpkin varieties. Pumpkin seeds are a popular snack that can be found hulled or semi-hulled at most grocery stores. A popular treat – especially at Halloween – is roasted pumpkin seeds (usually scooped out of Jack-o-lanterns). Pumpkin seeds are a good source of protein, magnesium, copper and zinc.
Of course, there are the GIANT pumpkins grown for competition at fairs, or just for fun. The largest pumpkins are in the species Cucurbita maxima. The variety in this species most known for its enormous size is Dill’s Atlantic Giant Pumpkin. This variety, when given very special horticultural attention from germination through maturity, has reached weights greater than 1,000 lbs. In fact, for a competition in 2010, the winning weight was 1,810 lbs – almost 1 ton.