As the leaves begin to turn and the air cools in the Western Hemisphere, many begin to crave the scent and taste of pumpkin spice. You may be one of those people — and your craving is actually by design. Fall weather also heralds Halloween season, when pumpkins are cut, scooped and carved into jack-o-lanterns, an iconic part of late October festivities.
Interestingly, the pumpkin is not a vegetable as you may have imagined, but rather a fruit. In fact, it is the official state fruit of New Hampshire.1 As part of their annual celebrations, the fall pumpkin festival has showcased thousands of carved pumpkins and has held the world record for the highest number of lit jack-o-lanterns in one place on multiple occasions.
The most important use for this large, round orange fruit, is food. Botanists define a fruit as the section of a plant that contains the seeds, while vegetables are other plant parts, such as roots, leaves and stems.2 Other "vegetables" you eat likely also fall under the definition of fruit, such as cucumbers, tomatoes and avocados.
Pumpkin seeds, scooped from the inside, are a powerhouse of nutritional value, packed with magnesium, protein, zinc and copper. They also contain phytosterols and free-radical scavenging antioxidants,3 making them a healthy snack choice.
The meat from the pumpkin also provides health benefits. It has a positive effect on irritable bladder and prostate complaints. The oil from the pumpkin seeds is mildly diuretic and the principal compound found in the seed, cucurbitacins, appears to inhibit the conversion of testosterone into dihydrotestosterone (DHT)4 that plays a role in the development of male pattern baldness.5
History of the Humble Pumpkin
Pumpkins are a member of the cucurbita family, which includes cucumbers, zucchini and squash.6 The word pumpkin originated from a Greek word, pepon, that means large melon.7 Early pumpkins didn't resemble the round, upright fruit sold in stores today. Instead of being grown for decor, they were a staple in the Native American and early settlers' diet. Early Native American farmers learned to grow squash, corn and beans together, using a symbiotic relationship called "the three sisters" approach.
The corn was a natural trellis for the beans, while the bean roots naturally added nitrogen into the soil to nourish the corn. The vines would help to stabilize the corn on windy days. The squash growing low to the ground would shelter the shallow roots of the corn plants, discourage weed growth and preserve moisture in the ground.