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Bill Starr: Pumpkins – in time for Halloween

One of the surest signs that fall is upon us is the appearance of pumpkins for sale along the roadside. Generally speaking if pumpkins are ready for harvest, frost can’t be far behind. The search for the perfect pumpkin has become almost as important as finding the perfect Christmas tree.
The name pumpkin originated from “pepon,” the Greek work for “large melon.” Native Americans used pumpkin seeds for food and medicine. American Colonists sliced off pumpkin tips, removed the seeds and filled the inside with milk, spices and honey. This was baked in hot ashes and is the origin for our pumpkin pie.
Pumpkins come in many shapes and sizes. Over the last couple of years, miniature pumpkins have become very popular. Many pumpkins will be carved into Jack-o-Lanterns. Finding just the right pumpkin for carving is a personal choice. Select a pumpkin that is visually appealing, usually a deep orange. The shape is just whatever appeals to you. If it has a flat spot or blemish, just turn that side to the back and carve the front or use it as part of the design.
So how do you preserve your carved pumpkin to make it last longer? Did you carve a great pumpkin masterpiece last your only to have it rot days before Halloween? Here is something you can try to help preserve the pumpkin a little longer. The intact skin of a pumpkin protects it until you carve it. But then various organisms can get inside and start to break it down. Simple dehydration will begin the moment the pumpkin is carved. Make a bleach solution of 1 tablespoon of bleach per quart of water and put it in a spray bottle. Spray the pumpkin inside and all cut areas of the pumpkin with the solution. This will kill the bacteria and mold that cause rotting. Let it penetrate and dry for about 20 minutes. Keep your pumpkin out of direct sunlight and try to keep it as cool as possible, and you should get at least a week or two of enjoyment out of it!
The tradition of hollowed out pumpkins originated in Ireland and Scotland where they hollowed out turnips and placed embers or candles inside. Irish families who immigrated to America brought the tradition with them, but they replaced the turnips with pumpkins which were native to the New World. I am glad pumpkins were native to America, how would you like to carve a turnip?
Have you ever wondered why carved pumpkins are called Jack-o-Lanterns? The tradition of Jack-o-Lanterns comes from an old Irish myth, about a man named “Stingy Jack” There are many different accounts of this story but the gist is that old Jack tricked the devil and then some years later Jack died, and because Jack was such an unsavory kind of fellow he was not allowed in Heaven and because he had tricked the devil he was not allowed in hell either. According to the legend right before Stingy Jack died, he was standing in a turnip patch eating some stolen turnips, and he died so suddenly that he still had a hollowed out turnip. Stingy Jack found out he wasn’t welcome in heaven or hell so he asked the devil where he was supposed to go. The devil told Jack he would have to wander a dark, twisting path. Jack made mention it was awful dark out there, and the devil thumped Jack a glowing coal which Jack scooped up with his knife and placed in the burning coal in the hollowed out turnip, because it was so hot. Now old Stingy Jack just wanders from place to place in the dark in the bogs, marshes, and fields, he and his glowing coal from a fire that never dies. Folks who knew Jack would carve out a turnip and put a light inside just to make him think their house was some place he shouldn’t be. When Irish immigrants made their way to the United States they still kept the tradition; they just used pumpkins instead of turnips. The Irish referred to Jack as Jack of the Lantern and eventually it was shortened to Jack-o-lantern.

Bill Starr is Sumter County Extension coordinator, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service. Contact him at 229-924-4476.