Colorful pumpkins and gourds are signs of autumn to me—and the autumn home and table would not be complete without them. Here are some unusual pumpkin varieties to look out for—warts and all—and ways to use these natural decorations for displays and centerpieces.
Pumpkins: A True American Native
Pumpkins have deep American roots. Our Pilgrim forefathers subsisted on these edibles during their harsh winters, thanks to the Wampanoag, who helped them survive their first year at Plymouth Colony. The Pilgrims had gone hungry their first winter, turning up noses at the long-storing foods like pumpkin and squash. When summer came, the colonists planted the seeds given to them by their Native American neighbors.
The pumpkin (actually, a type of squash) is a true native American crop, believed to have originated in Mexico at least 10,000 years ago. Along with maize (corn) and beans, which were domesticated much later, it joins the legendary Three Sisters of early native American agriculture.
Indigenous Americans valued the pumpkin for its long storage life and the portability of its fruits and high-protein seeds. Some native Americans dried strips of pumpkin and wove them into mats, which they traded as food commodities. They also used empty pumpkin shells as storage containers.
And as stated above, Native Americans introduced the European Colonists to the many uses of pumpkin, which quickly became a common staple food, as suggested by this couplet from a Pilgrim verse written around 1633:
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,
If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon.
Unusual Pumpkin and Gourd Varieties
Have you seen those warty pumpkins and gourds at farmers markets, orchards and garden centers? The ones with growths that look like big zits or peanuts? I first saw ‘Knuckle Head’, a slightly warty orange pumpkin, last year at a local orchard that also sells pumpkins, gourds and corn shocks. Of course, I bought it, along with a half dozen bumpy gourds.
(However, I also quickly discovered that the pumpkin and gourds were genetically altered and patented by Siegers Seed. Saved seeds don’t come true, unfortunately.)
See the photo below. What do you think? Yes, this is the way it’s supposed to look! I love the texture and it’s a great talk piece.
‘Knuckle Head’ was the first warty pumpkin I encountered.
During my vacation travels last month, I found a pink pumpkin that was wallpapered with huge peanuts! Not really. The growths or warts strongly resemble the shape and color of peanuts. It’s a 220-year-old heirloom, ‘Galeux d’Eysines’ from France.
‘Galeux d’Eysines’ is often called the peanut pumpkin for obvious reasons. The flesh makes tasty pies and other goodies.
The warts are created by the build-up of excess sugars in the flesh. In other words, the more peanuts, the tastier the flesh is. Needless-to-say, I’m making pumpkin bread, cheesecake and pie from it. And, I’m saving the seeds to grow next year.
Another heirloom pumpkin I love is muted blue-gray Jarrahdale from Australia. It’s ribbed and changes colors, from blue to musty peach, as it ages. The flesh is bright orange, dry and sweet. I’ve grown it for years, because it stores well and for its ghostly color.
‘Jarrahdale’, a ghostly pumpkin from Australia stores well for up to nine months.
If you have an outdoor patio or area, fill your containers and pots and doorsteps with pumpkins, squash, and gourds for a naturally seasonal display.
Inside, display your guards and squash in a woven basket to set on a table or shelf.
If you’re planning a centerpiece for the dining table, keep it low with mini-pumpkins and guards; add apples, pinecones and small candles.
Credit: Svetlana Cherruty/Shutterstock
Pumpkins can also be hollowed out to create a vase for a fall bouquet of flowers and foliage!
Credit: Agnes Kantaruk/Shutterstock
Or, hallow out small gourds and pumpkins to hold candles or candesticks …
And for something else natural …
Pumpkins for Cooking and Baking
Of course, fall pumpkins biggest strength is a culinary one! The small, round sugar pumpkins, also called “pie” pumpkins, are excellent for cooking. Pumpkin pie was a Thanksgiving dinner classic by the 18th century. Amelia Simmons’ pioneering 1796 “American Cookery” contained a pair of pumpkin pie recipes, one of which similar to today’s custard version.
In 1842, Lydia Maria Child, wrote her famous poem about a New England Thanksgiving that began, “Over the river, and through the wood” and ended with a shout, “Hurra for the pumpkin pie!”