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Jack o lanterns
Photo by Beth Teutschmann on Unsplash

A Halloween pumpkin is much more than just a pretty face. Here's Dr. Angela O'Callaghan:

If any plant were to say “autumn”, I guess it’d have to be pumpkin. These fruits can get so big, and so very orange, they’re the epitome of golden harvest. It makes sense that you can get them by the truckload this time of year.

Pumpkins are like all the other squashes with hard shells, true American natives. In parts of Europe, they use that name as a catch-all for all hard-shelled squash – Hubbard, butternut, delicata – just as they use the word “corn” as a general term for any grains, like wheat, oats, and barley.

What would the Halloween holiday season, which is basically all of October, be like if there weren’t jack-o-lanterns? Inventive and beautiful, or clumsy and simple, when they’re hand carved, they’re really special. Yes, it’s possible to buy plastic ones, but they don’t have the same soul.

Pumpkin flesh and skin are hard to get through, so it takes commitment and some effort to make a respectable jack-o-lantern.  All over the internet, you can find patterns and directions for creating something memorable. I just found a website that gives instructions on decorating pumpkins without carving. Definitely safer, but maybe a little too tame, especially given its origins. 

The idea of a jack-o-lantern comes from an old Irish myth about a man called Jack. He was such a miserable character when he was alive, that you can probably guess where he wound up after he died. He kept his detestable ways even in hell; so much so that the devil tried to kick him out into the cold darkness. The only thing Jack could have for all eternity was a lamp carved from a vegetable. There are no pumpkins in Ireland. The original jack-o-lantern was a turnip. I’m happy to report that we don’t have to try carving root vegetables for Halloween.

Pumpkins are more than decorations for a single day, although that day is the second biggest holiday for Americans.  They’re food, and a very good food at that. I found some nutritional information from the University of Illinois.

A whole cup of cooked pumpkin (like a big slice of pie, but without the butter, sugar, crust, and seasonings) has lots of benefits. By itself, it’s low calorie, with only 49 calories per cup, and only 12 grams of carbohydrate. It has vitamins A, B, C and E, some protein and fiber, and a good amount of minerals as well!

If you do carve one, don’t throw away the seeds. You can clean them off, and roast them with a little olive oil and salt. They’re edible, full of protein and other nutrients and they taste good!

Yes, overall, pumpkin is a health food.

Speaking of saving the seeds, it you have the space in your garden, or have a very large pot, you can try growing them.

They’re among the few vegetables you can plant in late spring and harvest at the end of October. They love heat, so they’re not worried about our wildly hot summers, as long as their needs are met.

They require a rich soil, so you want to add compost for the best growth, and since their leaves are big, they require more water than some other vegetables. Squash bugs and powdery mildew can be major problems, but if you can overcome them, you’ll have your own pumpkin.

I wouldn’t recommend trying to grow the world’s biggest, actually the heaviest, although the winner gets a large prize, maybe $10,000. For one thing, not too many people have the required acreage, and we certainly don’t have any excess water. And frankly, I think the really big ones are ugly – not pretty, often not round, and generally, not even orange!

For this year, remember that you can, and should, eat pumpkins. After Halloween, the price drops considerably; much like poinsettias after Christmas. They store pretty well, so it’s possible to buy them and keep using them through Thanksgiving.

For KNPR’s Desert Bloom, this is Dr. Angela O’Callaghan of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.