The Amazing Journey of the Pumpkin and its Origins

The versatile and resilient pumpkin has been through an amazing journey, one that is not often emphasized. Without pumpkins Halloween would not be what it is today; we’d be carving turnips instead.

Autumn is one of my favorite times of the year here in the United States. In the fall, I love taking nature walks and admiring the golden, brown and red hues of Maple tree leaves, their earthly natural colors, heighted by the bright sunlight. With it, autumn in the United States also brings hot drinks in cold days, fall festivals, changing leaves strewn about, and pumpkins. The days take in an easy going sort of rhythm, very different from the vibrant celebrations we have in Mexico around this time of the year.

Red and Orange Autumn Photo Credit: Stanley Zimny

Growing up in the central part of Mexico, the concept of changing seasons is nonexistent. There are minor changes in nature signaling the coming of the next season but nothing as drastic as it is in the Midwest states or along the East Coast of the United States.

The colors of nature during fall provide both the palette and the inspiration for all fall festivals and decorations inside American homes. But there’s also another important character that comes into play at this time of the year and without whom autumn would not be as exciting of a season; I am talking, of course about the pumpkin! This important fruit is essential during this time of the year; without it products labeled with the preceding descriptors of “spice pumpkin” would be absent from our markets as well as from Halloween itself.

But Americans are not the only ones who have fallen in love with this succulent and versatile fruit; pumpkins made their way to the homes of countries in six continents from Europe to New Zealand and even Africa.

The idea of decorating with pumpkins and the way I use them today has been affected by my time living in the United States. By October, I now enjoy decorating using a contrast of orange and black tones. I have also become fond of eating pumpkin pie during Thanksgiving, something that I found very hard to do when I first moved here.

The best way to describe my views and feelings around this time of the year can be summarized by a scene from the movie Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban; the part where Harry is hiding with his friends Ron and Hermone in a pumpkin patch. There are these huge, orange pumpkins, which stand out in contrast to the foggy and dark tones in the background.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban I bet you didn’t know where the first pumpkin was found!

With this entire obsession about pumpkins we hardly ever stop to think about where did the first pumpkins come from?

Pumpkins originated in Mexico. According to Arqueología Mexicana, the first Cucurbita pepo or pumpkin crop cultivated in Mesoamerica (present-day Central America including Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica) is about 10,000 years old. The oldest evidence of Cucurbita pepo, which is the variety that we use today was found in the cave of Guilá Naquitz in Oaxaca, Mexico. These seeds are the oldest evidence of pumpkin seeds found to date and they were found between 8,300 and 10,000 years ago (between 6000 and 8000 BC.).

In Mexico the word for both pumpkin and squash is the same: calabaza. Pumpkins are a type of squash; squash and pumpkin belong to the same family called the cucurbitaceae.

The early pumpkins were not big, round and orange as we known them in the United States. The early pumpkins used in ancient Mexico were a crooked neck variety, smaller in size, hard and bitter which made them the perfect crop to withstand harsh winters and stored well.

Pumpkins are more ancient than corn; archaeologists have found that different types of squash and pumpkins were cultivated along river and creek banks along with sunflowers and beans long before the emergence of maize or corn. After corn was introduced, ancient farmers learned to grow squash with corn and beans using the “Three Sisters” tradition.

Pumpkins were and still are a staple crop in the diets of Mexicans, South Americans and Native Americans in the United States and Canada. In Mexico, pumpkins are eaten all year round. However, demand increases during the fall for Day of the Dead celebrations where this fruit becomes one of the highlights of the ofrenda for the altars.

It is believed that pumpkins made their way to Europe by way of Christopher Columbus during his first trip to the New World. During the Spanish Conquest pumpkins were one of the crops brought back to Europe , first by the Spanish and then by the English.

Pumpkins are now harvested all over the world with some varieties harvested more than others depending on the country. At one point the U.S. used to be the largest producer of pumpkins, now China is number one. U.S. demand for pumpkins has grown so much that it is now the number one importer of pumpkins and squash from Mexico .

The varieties of pumpkins used in Mexico are very different from the ones used in the U.S. Americans prefer two types of pumpkins during this season: Connecticut Field, a round, bright, orange, and smooth pumpkin used for ornamental purposes during Halloween and Thanksgiving; and the ones used for commercial canning are Cucurbita moschata, a tan-colored, firm-fleshed, and elongated pumpkin. These types of pumpkins serve as the base ingredient for some of the favorite fall dishes in the U.S. This includes pumpkin pies, pumpkin infused drinks and a variety of other products made with pumpkin.

Connecticut Field the traditional American pumpkin used for Jack-o’-Lanterns

Giant pumpkins at an American Pumpkin Patch during a “Heaviest Pumpkin” competition

Different varieties of pumpkin and squashes used for ornamental purposes and consumption

pumpkin varieties grown in the U.S.

Mexicans on the other hand use a multitude of pumpkins and squash in a variety of ways. Different types of squash are used throughout Mexico to make soups, and other savory dishes. As mentioned earlier, demand for certain types of pumpkin increases as the festivities for Day of the Dead approaches; some of the dishes prepared as ofrenda for the altars rely heavily on certain types of pumpkins. Additionally, Mexicans enjoy pumpkin in its simplest form: just boiled, baked, or crystallized with sugar and aromatic spices. Nothing goes to waste; even the seeds are used to make a delicious snack, pepitas, which are either prepared at home or sold at food stands in markets.

The obsession with pumpkins is not limited to the U.S. or even Mexico, as many countries around the world have now adopted Halloween as a holiday. As a result demand for pumpkins continues to increase.

Halloween is one of the most anticipating and exciting holidays in the U.S. In 2016, U.S. consumers spend $171 million in Halloween festivities. This year it is expected they will spend about $9.1 billion. As far as pumpkins and pumpkin related items go, it is expected that this year U.S. consumers will spend $618,028,870 mostly going towards the all-American tradition of carving them into Jack-o’-Lanterns.

Halloween traditions include carving pumpkins into Jack-o’-Lanterns

other Halloween pumpkin carving ideas

The journey of the pumpkin and how it made its way from Mexico to the rest of the world continues to amaze me. Here are a few reasons why I have come to appreciate pumpkin and its long history;

  • It is more ancient than maize (corn)
  • It served as the main crop and staple food of the ancient civilizations as the Mayas and the Aztecs, the Native American tribes in the United States and Canada all relied heavily on this crop
  • If it wasn’t for pumpkin, the first English settlers would not have survived during their first years in the New World. They can be more than thankful that Native American tribes introduced them to this resilient fruit.

In closing, had it not been for pumpkins, the U.S. would not have its much anticipated and beloved holiday of all time; Halloween. And let’s not forget, it would lack the revenue this holiday brings with it. The pumpkin became the Halloween trademark. Without it, pumpkin patches and the Jack-o’-Lantern would be nonexistent, replaced instead by the face of a friendly ghost or probably a Jack-o’-Lantern made of turnip like it was originally made of. We owe a lot to the pumpkin, both commercially and culturally. In this season then, let’s celebrate the incredible journey that provided the entire world with this incredible and versatile fruit. So grab a pumpkin today and go enjoy the season!

© Lizzeth Montejano and Aculturame, 2012-2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Lizzeth Montejano and Aculturame with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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There are 5 comments

  1. Bama

    The history of food always fascinates me, and as the birthplace of so many good things in life, Mexico has always been on top of my wishlist. In Indonesia we use a lot of ingredients which originated in Mexico, although not many people are aware of this.

    1. La Potosina

      Hello Bama thank you for reading my blog, I also enjoy the history of food very much ☺ Indeed, Mexico is the birthplace of many important foods such as corn, beans, squash and chile or chili peppers that without them our popular dishes would not be so exciting to eat!

  2. Eddie Two Hawks

    A timely read on this country’s favorite food around Halloween. Your article’s inclusion of great photos
    illustrates the amazing size they can and do reach. Thanks for presenting us with this wonderful read.

    1. La Potosina

      Thank you for your comment Eddie! I always look forward to Fall in the United States because I get to enjoy many dishes made with pumpkin. What I found interesting is how this inexpensive fruit with an amazing ancient history became the star of a holiday and we continue consuming it even after Halloween. I thought pumpkin deserved to have an article of its own.

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