By Steven Foster, ©2012-2021
Which came first the Pilgrim or the Pumpkin? The pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) had already become the most widespread cultivated plant in North America by the time the Pilgrim’s European ancestors had barely crawled out of caves. Archeological remains of pumpkin seeds dated to more than 9,000 years old have been found in the Oaxaca in Mexico along with 7,000 year-old pumpkin seeds from sites in Illinois. At the point of European discovery, pumpkins and their relatives were cultivated from southern Canada to Argentina. It appears that what we know today as the pumpkin may have evolved from domestication of Cucurbita texana, now found in northeast Texas, but suspected of being of much wider distribution in ancient times. Molecular evidence gives rise to this hypothesis.
Pilgrims did not encounter pumpkins until they came to the Americas. However, Native American groups were happy to discover in the years shortly after the first invasions, gourd family members brought from the Old World to the Americas including muskmelon, watermelons and cucumbers, so of which probably arrived in the Americas via the slave trade.
The genus Cucurbita in the gourd family is comprised of about 13 species native to the Americas, five of which are cultivated and their remains found in archeological sites of peoples of ancient America. Their consumption since ancient times forms part of the staple diet of pre-Columbian America consisting of cucurbits, beans and maize. Pumpkins had edible seeds, a thick starchy, sweet rind, and excellent storage potential, lasting for months without decay, and easily dried in the sun or over a fire for long-term storage.
The big round pumpkin is typical of Cucurbita pepo, but the same species, in its evolution to diversity also gives use familiar cultivated varieties such as scallop squash; acorn squash; summer squash and crookneck; the unpalatable, inedible ornamental gourds, and the ever ubiquitous, no thank you, please, I don’t need more zucchini. The word squash comes from an Algonquin phrase askoot-asquash—“sometimes eaten when immature or raw.”
Descriptions of pumpkins began to appear in European herbals about 50 years after Columbus sailed home. Paintings of vegetable markets in the Netherlands and Flanders in the 1500s and 1600s show realistic images of eight different forms of pumpkins. In the 1636 edition of Gerarde’s Herball, the pumpkin was called “the Great Round Pompion.” By the early 1700s, pumpkin pies were a common food of England’s rural peasantry, undoubtedly an idea brought back by Pilgrims who had returned home to celebrate Halloween with family.