Pumpkins: Decorative, Delicious, Humongous, High-flying

Yesterday’s post on spooky plants may have introduced you to some new species, but everyone knows that the king of Halloween plants is the pumpkin. Every October we invite these squash onto our porches and into our homes to serve as decorations of the season.

There’s the traditional Jack O’ Lantern style:

English: Friendly pumpkin Svenska: Vänlig pumpa

English: Friendly pumpkin Svenska: Vänlig pumpa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is one to ensure few trick-or-treating visitors:

Here’s a sophisticated arrangement that Martha Stewart would be proud of:

Here’s something for the crowd that appreciates inappropriate humor:

Rouge vif d‘Etampes

Rouge vif d‘Etampes (Photo credit: flora.cyclam)

But pumpkins are more than just a pretty face, Curcubita pepo is actually a very interesting plant. There are dozens of varieties with traits that make them useful for many different purposes. Some are small and very sweet making them ideal for baking into pies like the Amish Pie or Baby Pam Sugar Pie. Others like the Rouge vif D’Etampes (aka Cinderella) are equally useful for carriages, cooking and still life painting models. Also, not all pumpkins are orange. The Marina Di Chioggia variety is a blue-green color with knobby skin. It looks atypical, but is still quite delicious.

English: Marina Di Chioggia squash grown in th...

English: Marina Di Chioggia squash grown in the California low desert (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

pumpkin at a competitive weigh-off in California.

pumpkin at a competitive weigh-off in California. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pumpkins also represent the world’s largest fruit, botanically speaking, that is.* The world’s largest pumpkin weighed in this year at 2032 pounds in Morgan Hill, CA. Now, that’s a great pumpkin! It takes about 100 days for the pumpkin to reach that size and the farmer calculated that at one point, the pumpkin was gaining 50 lbs a day. That’s a superphotosynthesizer indeed.

What are the secrets to growing a pumpkin as big as a smart car? It all comes down to a combination of nature and nurture. You need to start with seeds that have been bred for producing large pumpkins. Dill’s Atlantic Giant is a good variety and fierce competitors on the giant-pumpkin-growing circuit have paid as much as $1600.00 per seed from record-setting specimens. That’s a pricey investment you may think akin to Jack’s magic beans, but the prize for growing the year’s largest pumpkin can be $10k – $30k! Once you’ve planted your genetically superior pumpkin seeds be sure to pamper them with the finest of nutrients to support maximal growth. Some competitive growers swear by secret compost mixtures, but any nutrient-rich fertilizer will do. Multiple pumpkins will begin forming along the vines, but the best strategy involves culling the multiple developing fruits down to a single pumpkin. It’s always risky putting all of your eggs into one basket, but in this strategy the entire green plant will devote all of its resources into growing that single pumpkin. If you want a perfectly shaped pumpkin, roll it every week or so during the growing season to ensure roundness. Just be careful not to damage the vine feeding your pumpkin and be ever vigilant for pests like the dreaded squash vine borer.

Sheer size isn’t the only extreme when it comes to pumpkin traits. A modern fall tradition has spawned a new niche market for specialty pumpkins of a much smaller size capable of withstanding enormous pressures without exploding. I’m referring, of course, to Punkin Chunkin.

Punkin Chunkin

Punkin Chunkin (Photo credit: vpickering)

During this annual event** teams of garage tinkerers and self-proclaimed engineers*** take to a field in Delaware with homemade machines designed to launch a pumpkin as far as the laws of physics allow. There are multiple classes based on the type of instrument: air gun, centrifugal, catapult and trebuchet. Of course, there are many factors that contribute to a win for having chunked a pumpkin the longest distance, but all else being engineered properly the limiting factor is the pumpkin itself. The elusive goal for Punkin Chunkers is the 1 mile mark, but the mathematics just isn’t in favor of hurling a pumpkin that far by any means. Simply, the agricultural history of the pumpkin has not naturally selected for pumpkin sturdy enough to withstand the pressures associated with breaking the sound barrier, which is about the necessary velocity a pumpkin must reach to travel a mile by some calculations. According to the official rules of Punkin Chunkin, only 8 – 10 lb specimens of the listed varieties are allowed (Yes, competitors must provide their own pumpkins), and pumpkins must remain intact until they land on the ground. Thus, horticultural savvy is an important component in pumpkin distance world records. The Yankee Siege team has its own ten commandments when it comes to selecting pumpkins for chunking. The consensus is that smooth, white pumpkins that are nearly spherical are ideal for distance, and Lumina is the choice variety of veteran chunkers. It’s difficult to say whether Luminas are at their genetic limit for sturdiness, but the rules of Punkin Chunkin do not explicitly prohibit GMOs. Perhaps if some plant scientist were so inclined, Lumina pumpkins could be genetically engineered to have a calcite or silica shell like those of some phytoplankton for added stability. No more naked pumpkin ammo for these guns. It’s time for a bio-inspired shell casing. As you can see, the Kickstarter campaign practically sells itself.

starr-091003-7558-plant-Cucurbita_pepo-White_L...

starr-091003-7558-plant-Cucurbita_pepo-White_Lumina_pumpkin-Maui_County_Fair_Kahului (Photo credit: Starr Environmental)

Happy Halloween everyone!

Johnna

*Fruit is the fleshy structure that holds the seeds of plants. The way that we typically use the terms fruits and vegetables in everyday language (say, when trying to get your picky four-year-old to eat them) are more of an arbitrary culinary designation.

**This year’s takes place this weekend. It should be noted that the event isn’t all pumpkin guts or glory. The event generates ~$80K for charities like St. Jude’s Research Hospital.

***To be fair, many contestants are actual engineers.

References:

http://www.kew.org/plants-fungi/Cucurbita-pepo.htm

http://www.allaboutpumpkins.com/varieties.html

http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-science-of-biggest-pumpkin-20131015,0,2497209.story#axzz2j2nO3aRL

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/The-Great-Pumpkin.html

http://extension.oregonstate.edu/gardening/how-grow-monster-pumpkin-0

http://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-1600-pumpkin-seed-2013-10-29

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/14/AR2005101402126.html

http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=632675

http://scienceblogs.com/dotphysics/2009/11/20/punkin-chunkin-they-will-never-make-a-mile-range/

http://www.yankeesiege.com/HowToWin.html

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One thought on “Pumpkins: Decorative, Delicious, Humongous, High-flying

  1. Pingback: October Series: Plant Costumes | New Under The Sun Blog

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