23 October 2018

Oh my gourd: Spooky pumpkins at Kew

Pumpkins are the ultimate Halloween vegetable, but where do pumpkin traditions come from? Botanical Horticulturalist Héléna Dove explains.

By Ellen McHale

Autumn's pumpkins in our Kitchen Garden

Adding a splash of colour to supermarket shelves as well as vegetable patches, pumpkins and squash are a vegetable you definitely can't miss during autumn. 

From pumpkin spiced lattes to warming soup, we can't get enough of these rotund orange wonders. 

They're at their most popular during Halloween when they're carved into spooky designs and lit up with candles. 

Pumpkins and gourds belong to the Cucurbitaceae family (the same as melons and cucumbers) and are some of our most ancient crops. 

They come in all shapes, sizes and colours. They can range from blue to yellow and spotty, and can be tall, long, pear-shaped, or round. 

Pumpkins are great plants to grow as they don't suffer too much from pests and diseases. 

I raise pumpkin plants from seed in our glasshouses. Once they're strong and healthy, I plant them out in the beds after the risk of frost has passed. 

Pumpkin in the Kitchen Garden
Pumpkin in the Kitchen Garden, Ellen McHale © RBG Kew

Self-healing pumpkins

Once the pumpkins are fully grown and picked, I cure them in the sun for a few weeks to help the skin harden. 

The curing process allows the skin of the pumpkins to continue maturing and hardening, which gives them a much longer storage life. 

Any wounds to the skin are able to heal and the flesh will get slightly sweeter. 

Why do we carve pumpkins at Halloween?

Our modern festival of Halloween finds its roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain. This pagan festival celebrated the end of summer and its harvests marked the beginning of winter. 

It was believed that on this night it was easier for supernatural beings and the souls of the dead to enter our world, so lanterns were placed outside of homes to deter spirits. 

In Scotland and Ireland, these lanterns were carved from turnips and potatoes which were readily available at this time of year. 

In the mid-1800s, Scottish and Irish immigrants arrived in America, carrying with them the tradition of lantern carving for Samhain. 

But rather than an abundance of turnips at the end of October, there were pumpkins and squash to be carved instead. This is the tradition that we carry on toda

Pumpkins Ellen McHale © RBG Kew

Pumpkin facts

  • There are more than 45 different varieties of pumpkin
  • They're 90% water
  • Pumpkins are grown on every continent apart from Antarctica
  • Every single part of a pumpkin is edible. You can eat the skin, leaves, flowers, seeds, pulp, and even the stem
  • When gourds are dried, a solid shell is left behind, which people used to use as drinking vessels 

Pumpkin Gratin

Next time you're cooking pumpkin, skip the soup and give this pumpkin gratin a try from Kew's Global Kitchen Cookbook. 

  • 1kg pumpkin or squash 
  • Seasoned flour 
  • Oil 
  • 500g onions
  • 250g tomatoes 
  • Salt 
  • Pepper 
  • Sugar 
  • 2 tbsp breadcrumbs
  • 30g butter 
  1. Peel the pumpkin and remove the seeds and fibers. Slice in pieces about 0.5cm thick, and as wide as half of your palm. 
  2. Make seasoned flour by adding freshly ground pepper and salt to some plain flour, and turn the pumpkin pieces in the flour to coat them. Fry them in oil until they're golden, but not brown. Drain the fried pumpkin well. 
  3. Slice the onions and cook them gently in some oil until soft but not coloured. Add the tomatoes (skinned and chopped if fresh). Raise the heat to reduce the juice, so you end up with soft onions bathed in tomato. Season with salt, pepper, and a pinch of sugar. 
  4. Butter a shallow gratin dish and put a layer of pumpkin on the bottom. Cover with onion sauce, then another layer of pumpkin, and so on. Finish with a layer of pumpkin, then scatter with breadcrumbs and fleck with dots of butter. 
  5. Bake at 190°C/37°F/Gas Mark 5 for 20-30 mins, until the top is golden brown and the edges are bubbling.

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