The Top: Seven Interesting Facts About Pumpkins

Tis the season for pumpkin everything! Learn more about the plant that has brought you pumpkin pies, Cinderella's carriage and jack-o-lanterns.

Leave the Pumpkin Spice Lattes behind; this is the real deal! Photo courtesy of Liz West (Flickr)

Welcome to The Top!

Each issue, we present a list of UCR staff and faculty favorites — from walking spots to gardens to events.

This week, in the spirit of autumn, we are discussing pumpkins with Milt McGiffen, Cooperative Extension vegetable crops specialist and plant physiologist.

From their prehistoric roots to their history at UCR, here are seven facts!

1. Pumpkins, squash and gourds belong to the same family

Pumpkins, gourds and squash are all the same!

Pumpkins, gourds and squash are all the same! (If you don’t count color and shape and size ….)

Although Americans categorize pumpkins, squash, gourds and melons as different foods, they are all from the Cucurbitaceae family. They can also be bred with one another, which explains why there are a large variety in the shapes, colors and textures in these crops. One big distinguishing factor is that gourds are usually grown for their hard, outer rind and not to eat, while the other plants are harvested for both their outer shell and their edible flesh.

2. Pumpkins are both fruits and vegetables

Pumpkins are both fruits and vegetables. It's the best of both worlds!Photo courtesy of Liz West (Flickr)

Pumpkins are both fruits and vegetables. It’s the best of both worlds!Photo courtesy of Liz West (Flickr)

Legally, they are considered vegetables. But to a botanist such as Milt McGiffen, pumpkins are seen as fruits because it is the fruit of the plant that is being harvested.

3. Illinois grows more pumpkins than any other state

Morton, Illinois is the "Pumpkin Capital of the World." Photo courtesy of Don Hankins (Flickr)

Morton, Illinois is the “Pumpkin Capital of the World.” Photo courtesy of Don Hankins (Flickr)

In fact, pumpkins are grown on over 12,000 acres of land in Illinois. Most of Illinois’ pumpkin production is used for canned pumpkin pie filling. Guess who the second ranked state in pumpkin production is? It’s California! The pumpkins grown in California are largely for decorative and jack-o-lantern purposes.

4. Pumpkins are an ancient plant

Photo courtesy of Kam Abbott (Flickr)

Photo courtesy of Kam Abbott (Flickr)

Pumpkins are considered one of the oldest domesticated plants on Earth, McGiffen said, “Their ancestry has gone as far back as 10,000 years!”

5. Oranger is better when it comes to pumpkins

Orange is the new healthy. Photo courtesy of Simon Blackley (Flickr)

Orange is the new healthy. Photo courtesy of Simon Blackley (Flickr)

“The more orange the flesh is, the more antioxidants it contains,” said McGiffen. The orange coloring comes from pigments called carotenoids. Your body converts these carotenoids into antioxidant vitamins. Pumpkins are rich in vitamin A and vitamin C, benefiting your vision, skin and immune system.

6. Pumpkin seeds have spiked in popularity recently

Did you know that the average pumpkin contains around 500 seeds?Photo courtesy of Brian Jackson (Flickr)

Did you know that the average pumpkin contains around 500 seeds?Photo courtesy of Brian Jackson (Flickr)

“Pumpkin seed is a new thing. We see a lot more of them now,” said McGiffen. This is due to it becoming more in the public consciousness to eat pumpkin seeds for its health benefits. Pumpkin seeds are a valued source of zinc, vitamin E and healthy oils. McGiffen lists pumpkin seed chocolate bark as one of his favorite snacks.

7. UCR used pumpkins to study impacts on water quality

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The Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Board commissioned a study in 2007-2008 by UCR’s Cooperative Extension in conjunction with Laosheng Wu, professor of soil physics. The researchers were asked to determine what land uses were having the greatest impact on the San Jacinto River Watershed.

The team observed different land-use practices, including growing pumpkins, to measure how each practice was affecting water quality. The result was that homeowners had a far greater impact on water quality in the San Jacinto River Watershed than did agriculture, due to homeowners using more fertilizer per acre compared to agriculture. The over-application of fertilizer is more likely to leach into the groundwater.

“When the experiment was over, the grower let me take back a pickup-load of pumpkins, which we gave out all over campus,” McGiffen said. “People still occasionally ask me each October if I will be bringing back anymore.”

If you have something you’d like featured in The Top or an activity you’d like to share, email jeanette.marantos@ucr.edu.

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