Tidewater Gardening - October 07

Fall Symbols and Punkin’ Chunkin’


K. Marc Teffeau

    When we think about fall fruits and vegetables and October what usually comes to mind? Apples and apple cider? Indian corn and corn stalk decorations? The last of the sunflowers? The multicolored and sometimes weird looking ornamental gourds? Of course, it is the perennial favorite, the pumpkin – a cucurbit.
     Cucurbits, members of Cucurbita species group, include cucumbers, muskmelons, watermelons, pumpkins, summer squash, winter squash, and gourds. These are some of the most popular garden vegetables planted today.
     Cucurbit crops are similar in their appearance and requirements for growth. They have prostrate, sprawling vines, usually with tendrils. Each vine bears many large, lobed leaves. On all cucurbits, except for the bottle gourd, the flowers are bright yellow. Each vine bears two kinds of flowers: pistillate (female) and staminate (male).
     Of course it is too late to plant cucurbits for this season as they are warm season crops which grow best during periods of warm nights and warm days.
     New dwarf and/or bush types enable gardeners with limited space to enjoy the fresh home-grown taste of cucumbers, watermelons, and squash. Although traditional cucurbit types require substantial growing space, they can still be grown in small gardens by training vines onto vertical structures that conserve garden space. So make plans to add some cucurbits to your vegetable garden next spring.
     According to archeologists, the Cucurbita species originated over 9,000 years ago in Central and South America, the first of the triad of corn, beans, and squash to be domesticated. Squash was grown primarily for its edible seeds, because the flesh of these early types was bitter-tasting. Long before Europeans set foot in the New World, native South Americans cultivated improved varieties, the seeds of which have traveled north.
Cultivated pumpkins are believed to have originated in Central America and seeds from related plants found in Mexico date back to 5500 B.C.
     Native American Indians used pumpkin as a staple in their diets centuries before the pilgrims visited our shores, so they readily found their way to the first Thanksgiving table. Believing that squash seeds would increase fertility the early Native Americans made this vegetable an important staple in their diet, referring to it as “The apple of God.” They also dried strips of pumpkin and wove them into mats. Indians would also roast long strips of pumpkin on the open fire and eat them.
     Pumpkins became a mainstay for the early colonists, who had many culinary and medicinal uses for them. As today, early settlers used them in a wide variety of recipes from desserts to stews and soups. The first pumpkin “pie” was actually a pumpkin with its top cut off, seeds removed, and cavity filled with a mixture of apples, sweetener, spices, and milk. The top was replaced and the entire thing was baked in the hot ashes of a dying fire.
     References to pumpkins date back many centuries. The name pumpkin originated from the Greek word for “large melon” which is “pepon.” “Pepon” was changed by the French into “pompon.” The English changed “pompon” to “Pumpion.” American colonists changed “pumpion” into “pumpkin.”
     Cucurbita pepo is usually recognized as the true pumpkin and includes many pie, jack-o-lantern, and field pumpkins as well as summer squash, acorn squash, and spaghetti squash. Varieties within this group have hard, woody, distinctly furrowed stems. The pumpkins have bright, deep orange skin. Surprisingly most of the canned “pumpkin” that you use for pumpkin pies is not pumpkin but a squash, Cucurbita moshata. These vegetables are deeply ridged, pentagonal, and smooth. Most varieties are tan and oblong. Cushaw, Winter Crookneck, and Butternut squash are in this species.
     We use pumpkins in many different ways in October. Carving the jack-o-lantern is a favorite children’s activity around Halloween. What 5 year old doesn’t relish the opportunity to stick his or her hand into the slimy, gooey innards of the pumpkin that mom or dad has just carved? We used to do that with our boys and then separate out the seeds and bake them for a few minutes on a metal tray in the oven for seed “snacks.”
     For the home decorator, pumpkins are placed upon doorsteps and porch as orange sentinels. The miniature ones, “little spooky” and the like, show up on the dining room table along with their multicolored gourd cousins and perhaps an arrangement of some fall straw flowers.
     But wait! The best and most fulfilling use of pumpkins is to hurl them through the air at tremendous velocities. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I am talking about that venerable Eastern Shore tradition the first weekend of November – PUNKIN’ CHUNKIN’!
     Talbot County, you can keep your stuffy Waterfowl Festival with the BMW-driving, Orvis-wearing, decoy-buying public who descend en mass into Easton and environs that November weekend. The fall festival for the common man, the celebratory experience for slower, lower Delaware will again be held the first weekend in November east of Bridgeville, Delaware.
     Where else can you see and experience the propulsion of multiple sized Cucurbita pepo varieties, 8 to 10 pounds for adult classes, 2 to 4 pounds for children classes, through the air to distances of over 3,000 feet? Does the Waterfowl Festival have a similar event? Maybe goose throwing?
     Utilizing the most ingenious of mechanical and human powered artillery, the spheroid fall vegetable is launched for the entertainment of the crowd. It is interesting that the best types of large pumpkin used in the contests are those with a white colored skin. They seem to hold up better than the orange pumpkins to the mechanical forces which hurl them great distances – pumpkins that explode in the barrel are called “pies.” Plus, it’s easier to see the white ones against the sky as they fly through the air.
     So put November 2nd, 3rd and 4th on your calendar, and plan to join yours truly and wife at the only event where you can see flying fall produce. Don’t forget your folding chairs and plan to arrive early in your motorized portable punkin chunkin observation platform – your pickup truck – and sit back in the truck bed and enjoy the festivities. Plenty of great food also available at the contest, plus super music. Make sure to check out the www.punkinchunkin.com website for more details.

Happy Gardening!