Pumpkins lie in piles on a field.
Traditional pumpkins of all shapes and sizes await selection by jack-o-lantern carvers at the Conifer Fall Festival. Credit: Deb Hurley Brobst

You could call pumpkins an important symbol of autumn.

The minute September rolls around, pumpkin appears in every food imaginable from pumpkin-spice lattes to soups to pumpkin cereal. Huge cartons of pumpkins arrive in stores as we prepare for fall holidays.

But what do we know about pumpkins? How long have they been growing? Do they have other uses than decorations and pie? Why are some pumpkins different from the orange pumpkins we carved as children? 

Here’s your chance to learn more about the orange — and sometimes white and even teal — gourds.

Bitter beginnings

The pumpkin began as a tiny fruit — yes, pumpkins are fruits —  as long as 7,500 to 10,000 years ago in Mexico and Central America, according to Jennifer Ackerfield, head curator of natural history collections at the Denver Botanic Gardens. 

Woman holding a display of plants
Jennifer Ackerfield, head curator of natural history collections at the Denver Botanic Gardens, holds the pressed pumpkin plant that grew in Mexico thousands of years ago. The round portion with seeds toward the bottom right is what the original pumpkins looked like. Credit: Deb Hurley Brobst

The original fruit from the Cucurbita family, which is Latin for gourd, was tiny, hard and round, nothing like today’s pumpkins, and the plants were stinky. Historians hypothesize that the fruits were eaten by woolly mammoths, Ackerfield said, and there were six indigenous species, with one species growing now in the Denver Botanic Gardens’ York Street location.

While the plant was gross, as Ackerfield put it, the seeds were tasty. The hard fruit was scraped out to use for bowls and cups. Through years of seed cultivation and seed trading, pumpkins became larger and oranger, and then other modifications were bred into them.

Current pumpkins

Halloween pumpkins are specifically bred for size, shape and the pumpkin-wall thickness, so they make better jack-o’-lanterns, according to Eric Hammond, CSU Extension director for Adams County.

“Recently there has been a lot more interest in unique shapes, sizes and textures, even those with warty textures,” Hammond said. “Interestingly, the funky varieties are old-time varieties. We wouldn’t call them heirloom pumpkins, but it’s in a similar vein.”

He said pumpkins, like many fruits and vegetables, have a wide genetic diversity, and some plant breeders look for that.

a variety of pumpkins in a box
Pumpkins of all shapes, sizes and colors are available for sale at a local Safeway. Credit: Deb Hurley Brobst

“Sometimes they find wild varieties that are attractive, and they cross-breed them to get desirable traits,” Hammond said. 

He said nowadays, people are looking for unusual-looking pumpkins, and growers are happy to take advantage of the demand for them.

“Unusual-looking pumpkins have always been there,” he said. “It’s just there wasn’t a demand for them until recently.”

If you want your pumpkins to last a lot longer and you are not carving them into jack-o’-lanterns, wipe them with a diluted bleach solution, which kills microbes, and the pumpkins will last a lot longer, Hammond said.

He advised people to compost their pumpkins after they have outlived their decorative purpose rather than throwing them away, so they don’t add to landfill waste.

Who knew?

  • The largest pumpkin ever grown in Colorado weighed 1,729 pounds, and earlier this month, a pumpkin named Michael Jordan was crowned at the 50th World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off  in California as the largest pumpkin ever grown, weighing 2,749 pounds.
  • The Pumpkin Capital of the World is Morton, Illinois, which is the home of Libby’s pumpkin industry. About 12,300 acres of pumpkins are grown yearly in Illinois, the most of any state, and more than 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins are grown yearly in the United States, according to the Farmers’ Almanac.
  • Pumpkins were once considered a remedy for freckles and snakebites, the almanac said, and settlers cut the flesh into strips, dried them and used them to weave mats.
  • Native Americans grew and ate pumpkins and their seeds long before the Pilgrims reached North America. Pilgrims learned how to grow and prepare pumpkins from the Native Americans. Pumpkin was most likely served at the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621, the almanac said.
  • The earliest pumpkin pie made in America was different from today’s pumpkin pie. Pilgrims and early settlers made pumpkin pie by hollowing out a pumpkin, filling the shell with milk, honey and spices, and baking it, the almanac said.
  • Each pumpkin has about 500 seeds, and there are 45 varieties of pumpkins, according to Good Housekeeping magazine.
  • The first jack-o’-lanterns weren’t made from pumpkins. Instead, the Irish carved faces in turnips, and Ackerfield called them very scary looking. When Irish immigrants moved to America, they found pumpkins more suitable.
  • Christopher Columbus brought pumpkin seeds, along with corn and potatoes, back to Europe, the almanac said.

World’s record pumpkins

Guinness World Records lists 73 pumpkin records. Here are a few:

  • The largest pumpkin pie weighing 3,699 pounds was made by New Bremen Giant Pumpkin Growers in New Bremen, Ohio, in 2010. The diameter of the pie was 20 feet. The crust was made of 440 sheets of dough.
  • Steve Clarke is the world’s fastest pumpkin carver. The teacher in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, holds the record for fastest pumpkin carving at just over 16 seconds.
  • Trevor Hunt holds the record for most pumpkins carved in an hour. He carved 109 pumpkins in 60 minutes or 33 seconds per pumpkin.
  • The longest journey by paddling in a pumpkin boat is 37.5 miles achieved by Duane Hansen in Nebraska City, Nebraska, in 2022.

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