Pumpkin (cucurbita pepo)

Native to the Americas and cultivated for more than 10,000 years, the pumpkin is valued for its colorful, edible fruit and healthful seeds. The thick-skinned fruit—borne on long, trailing vines—is commonly associated with holiday pies and Halloween jack-o’-lanterns. But for Native Americans, the pumpkin and other squashes (all members of the genus Cucurbita) were a dietary staple that they prepared in many different ways: baked, roasted, and mashed; added to soups and other dishes; or dried and then ground into a meal for use in puddings and sauces. Native Americans also used the pumpkin medicinally. Most widely used to expel worms, pumpkin seed was also employed as a diuretic, a skin cleanser and softener, and a treatment for arthritis.


Plant profile

Common Name: Pumpkin

Description: Herbaceous vine with hollow stems and large, deeply cut leaves; yellow flowers; large, thick-skinned fruits

Hardiness: Annual

Family: Cucurbitaceae

Flowering: Midsummer

Parts Used: Leaves, flowers, seeds, and fruit

Range/Habitat: Central, North, and South America; cultivated worldwide in temperate regions

Culinary use

Nearly all parts of the pumpkin—leaves, flowers, seeds, and fruit—can be used in cooking. Pumpkin blossoms, like those of other squashes, can be stuffed, dipped in batter, and then fried, or they can be baked into breads and cakes. Pumpkin leaves are good sources of vitamins A and C, iron, and calcium. Chop the tender young leaves and then steam them, or sauté them alone or with other vegetables. Try cooking them in a bit of canola oil along with chopped onion, garlic, and freshly grated ginger. Finish with lemon juice.

The versatile fruit, an excellent source of vitamin A, can be used in both savory and sweet dishes. Mash or puree the roasted flesh and serve it as a side dish, or use it in soups, cakes, pies, breads, puddings, pancakes, or cookies. Cubed pumpkin can be stir-fried with chiles and basil, added to curry dishes, or combined with coconut milk and spices for soup. To prepare a whole pumpkin as a main dish, slice off the top and scoop out the seeds and fiber; fill the interior with vegetable stew or a stuffing of bread cubes, cheese, garlic, and herbs, and then bake.

Medicinal use

Research has found that pumpkin seeds exhibit antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. The seeds are dense in several nutrients, providing protein, fiber, iron, calcium, linoleic acid (believed to help prevent hardening of the arteries), and the minerals zinc and selenium (important for prostate health). Germany’s official pharmacopoeia, known as the Commission E monographs, recommends eating 10 grams of ground or whole pumpkin seed daily for the treatment of irritated bladder conditions and the early stages of benign prostatic hyperplasia, a swelling of the prostate that affects urination. Eating pumpkin seeds could also help prevent osteoporosis and reduce the symptoms of inflammatory conditions.

How to grow it

Pumpkin is easy to grow in average garden soil and full sun. To speed germination, scratch the seed coat lightly with a nail file. Plant seeds directly in your garden in spring, after all danger of frost has passed and the soil has completely warmed. (In cold climates, you can speed soil warming by using black plastic mulch.) Sow the seeds 1 inch deep, placing four to six seeds per 2-foot-diameter hill; space the hills 5 to 6 feet apart in rows 10 to 15 feet apart. Several weeks after the seeds have germinated, thin to two or three plants per hill. Feed the plants weekly with diluted fish emulsion or compost tea. Harvest pumpkins in fall, before the first heavy frost, when the fruits have attained a deep solid color and the skin has hardened. Use a sharp knife to cut fruit from the vine, allowing 3 to 4 inches of stem to remain attached to the fruit. Store the fruit in a dry location at 50° to 55°F.

Toasting pumpkin seeds

As you prepare a pumpkin for carving or cooking, save the seeds. Rinse off the yellowish fibers that surround the white seeds, then spread out the seeds and let them air-dry. Toast the dry seeds with a small amount of oil in a nonstick skillet, or place them on a nonstick baking pan or foil and toast them in a 250°F oven until crispy. (This usually takes less than an hour.) Lightly salted toasted pumpkin seeds (also called pepitas) make an excellent snack—even the shells are edible and are a good source of fiber. Experiment by adding garlic powder, cayenne pepper, or other herbs and spices for flavor. (If you dislike eating pumpkin hulls, grow ‘Lady Godiva’—a variety that produces hull-less, or “naked,” seeds.)