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Even though the weather seems to think it's still summer, fall has arrived. This means leaves changing color, apple cider, and pumpkin spice everywhere. It also means many of us will be taking a visit to a pumpkin patch.

Pumpkins are a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, along with several other familiar plants such as squash, cucumbers, melons, and gourds. These plants are commonly referred to as cucurbits. Typically a cucurbit that produces a round, orange fruit (botanically speaking pumpkins are fruit even though we treat them as vegetables) is called a pumpkin. There are a few species of plants that contain the plants we commonly refer to as pumpkins; Cucurbita maxima, Cucurbita moschata, and primarily Cucurbita pepo.

When it comes to pumpkins, Illinois is king. In 2017 Illinois produced over 640 million pounds of pumpkins, which is almost 4 times more than the runner-up (California). Most (80%) of the pumpkins grown in Illinois aren't your average carving pumpkins, but processing pumpkins used to make canned pumpkin. Processing pumpkins are typically the size and shape of a watermelon, with light orange skin, and weigh about 20 pounds. According to the Morton (IL) Chamber of Commerce, about 80 percent of canned pumpkin in the world is produced at the Libby's plant there, making Morton the "Pumpkin Capital of the World". If you make your pumpkin pie with canned pumpkin, that pumpkin probably came from Illinois.

When you make your way out to the pumpkin patch here are a few things to look for when you're selecting pumpkins.

  • First, choose a pumpkin with a stem. Pumpkins without a stem don't last as long as those that do. Also, never carry your pumpkin by the stem. If the stem breaks off it creates a wound that can lead to rot.
  • Many people look for a nice round pumpkin, but in reality the shape of the pumpkin isn't all that important. If you plan on carving and/or displaying your pumpkin look for one with a flat bottom, so it will stand upright.
  • Examine pumpkins for soft spots, mold, wrinkles, holes or open cuts. If you find any of these, move to the next pumpkin because these areas will rot.
  • Keep your pumpkin in a cool place until you are ready to carve it, this will help extend the life of your pumpkin.

When it comes time to carve your pumpkin, wash it with warm water and a little dish soap and let it dry. Carving should only be done a few days before Halloween. After pumpkins have been carved they begin to lose moisture and rot organisms begin to move in. One way to help slow down the decline of your pumpkin is to wash the cut surfaces with a 20% bleach solution (to help prevent rot) and coat the cuts with petroleum jelly (to help prevent moisture loss). Using a candle can also speed up the deterioration of pumpkins, so instead use a battery powered light.

Once you're done with your pumpkin, it will make a great addition to your compost.