Karl Foord, UMN Extension Educator
The word pumpkin originates from the Greek word pepon or "large melon". The French changed this to pompon, the British to pumpion, and the American colonists to "pumpkin".
Pumpkins (cucurbits) originated in Mesoamerica, and many of the wild species are found in the area south of Mexico City to the Guatemalan border. There are three species of interest: Cucurbita pepo, C. maxima, and C. moschata. The terms squash and pumpkin have no botanical meaning because as you will see each species has produced both squash and pumpkins. This article will mention the squash but focus on what we traditionally call pumpkins.
All species are monoecious having separate male and female flowers. The pollen is heavy and must be transferred by a pollinator. Two bee genera evolved to become efficient pollinators of cucurbits (squash bees, Peponapis spp. and Xenoglossa spp.). Interestingly enough pollination seems to be a morning phenomenon as breeders have found that the percentage of successful pollinations is greater in the early morning and then decreases gradually until noon.
There is great variation for size, color, skin type, and shape both within and among pumpkin species. The species that contains most of the varieties that we would encounter at a market or pick your own come from Cucurbita pepo. The size categories break down as follows: 1. Miniatures (< 1 lb.) like 'Wee-B-Little', 2. Baby pumpkins (1 - 3 lbs) like 'Summer Ball', 3. Small pie pumpkins (4 - 7 lbs) like 'Baby Pam', 4. Jack-o'Lantern types (7 - 30 lbs.) like the white 'Moonshine', the wart skinned 'Knuckle Head' , American Tondo, and the traditional 'Howden Biggie'. Other commonly encountered Cucurbita pepo members include: most summer squashes, Gourds, Pattypan Summer squash, Crookneck squash, Scallop Summer Squash, and Zucchini.
The species Cucurbita maxima as expected given the name the large giant pumpkins like 'Dill's Atlantic Giant' which grown normally produces 50 - 100 lb pumpkins, but when given special attention can produce 2 - 300 lb pumpkins, and is the variety that holds the record for the largest pumpkin at > 1,600 lbs. This species also has some pumpkins with interesting characteristics such as the 'Rouge Vif D'Etampes' (rouge vif meaning "vivid red") whose shape served as the model for Cinderella's carriage pumpkin. Also quite different is the variety 'Marina Di Chioggia' with its green color and wart like banded skin. Other commonly encountered Cucurbita maxima members include: Hubbard squash and most winter squashes.
The final species is Cucurbita moschata whose main contribution is the 'Libby's Select Dickinson' field pumpkin. Libby's owns close to 90 percent of the canned pumpkin market in North American. In the early 1800's the Dickinson family moved from Kentucky to Illinois and started a canning facility using what is now called the 'Libby's Select Dickinson' pumpkin. Libby's purchased both the canning plant and variety rights to the pumpkin in 1929. Some other interesting Cucurbita moschata varieties are 'Musque de Provence' and 'Naples Long' a peanut shaped squash that is considered an Italian heirloom variety. Other Cucurbita moschata members include butternut squash.
The variation within these Cucurbita species is really quite remarkable and we haven't even touched on the variability among the squashes.
All photo credits Johnny's Selected Seeds.
A special thanks to Johnny's Selected Seeds of Winslow, Maine for graciously allowing us to use their photos in this article; some very nice people up there in the State of Maine. Seed can be obtained for all varieties pictured from Johnny's Selected Seeds.