Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Great Pumpkins

Leonardo Urenas prize winning pumpkin

Precocious, blanket-toting Linus from the Peanuts comic strip awaited the Great Pumpkin each Halloween night from 1950 to 1999. If anyone else had been stood-up that many times, they’d have thrown in the blanket for sure. Perhaps Linus’ resolute faith that the mythical pumpkin would show up was because every year brings the world a greater pumpkin. 

In 1900 the world record was 400 pounds. By 1990 it was up to 816 lbs., but that wouldn’t even get you in the door these days – you need a 2,000-pound entry just to qualify for international judging. Pumpkins have gotten so great they’ve been used as boats, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn somebody had moved into one. I suppose a pumpkin house would be a nice upgrade for the old lady who lived in a shoe (though the kids would eat the poor lady out of house and home). 

dills great atlantic pumpkinBeing a scholarly lad, Linus probably looked north on Halloween night because he knew great pumpkins come from Canada. In 1979, Nova Scotia plant breeder Howard Dill patented “Dill’s Atlantic Giant,” a pumpkin variety whose genetics serve as the basis for today’s record-breakers. Although Mr. Dill was often called the Pumpkin King, I doubt he’s related to the Great Pumpkin. These days, giant pumpkin enthusiasts (that’s regular-size people and colossal produce) compete in dozens of countries thanks to him.

On October 2, 2021 a Nova Scotia farmer brought things back to where they began with a 1,956-pound leviathan he dubbed “Howard’s Ghost” in honor of the pumpkin king. Howard (the pumpkin) squashed the competition in all Atlantic Provinces and came within three pounds of beating the Canadian national record set in 2018. Stefano Cutrupi of Italy grew year’s world champion, a 2,702-pound mammoth that would be a dream come true for Linus.

You can bet the seeds from such record-holders command a high price. Beyond good genes, though, it takes a lot of daily attention to raise a contender. Growers put in untold hours of labour, which intensifies as the developing “babies” need ever-increasing amounts of water. 

Pumpkins are a type of winter squash, one of many varieties originally selected for and cultivated by First Nations. Hubbard and butternut squash along with pumpkins have been raised by Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) farmers since long before European contact right into modern times. Even the word squash is of Algonquin origin. Europeans chose Greek-based “pumpkin” for the ribbed orange variety because “The Great Squash” didn’t sound quite right.

Successful storage begins in the garden – pumpkins and squash should be brought indoors before a hard frost. Always support them from underneath. Stems aren’t handles, and if they break, rot will quickly ensue. Ideally, pumpkins and squash should be stored at around 65 degrees F (never below 50) and between 60% and 70% humidity.

Under good conditions, acorn squash usually last 5-8 weeks. Pie pumpkins often keep for 3-4 months, while Hubbards and butternuts sometimes go 6 months. Given that giant pumpkins have Hubbard genetics, I’d expect they could last a while. But who’s going to build a storage room around a one-ton pumpkin? 

It would seem this agricultural super-sizing may have been predicted 70 years ago by little Linus. Maybe I should revisit those old comics to read what else the child philosopher had to say. 

Paul Hetzler, a former Cornell Cooperative Extension Educator, is still wailing for the Pretty Good Pumpkin.

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Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at PaulHetzlerNature.org or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World


2 Responses

  1. Boreas says:

    I recall as a wee lad I sold “Atomic” Pumpkin seeds for a grade school fundraiser. These seeds supposedly had been irradiated somehow. The packet was complete with images of pumpkins about the size of a VW, planting instructions, and a tiny disclaimer that “not all” seeds would grow to such an extreme. I don’t think mine grew at all. Irradiating seeds is probably not the best way to encourage growth.

  2. Todd Miller says:

    A fun read that even included some practical instructions on how to store your pumpkins, but Giant pumpkins kinda diminishes the magical experience of Cinderella’s coach by making the magical “Poof” unnecessary to enlarge the pumpkin into the coach. I suppose “Poof” would still be needed for enlarging the mice into horses, but then again, scientists have probably genetically designed giant mice, too. It’ tough being a fairy godmother these days.

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