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A Palette of Pumpkins

Martha Stewart Living, October 2008

Some sit bulging and broad, secure in their squatness. Some stand tall.

They are pear-shape. They're ellipsoidal and spheroidal. They can be wide-shouldered or slump-shouldered. The biggest ever approached a ton; the smallest would barely tip the needle on a bathroom scale.

The colors of their skin also vary enormously. Start with every tint of orange, of course, from amber to apricot, coral to persimmon.

Then envision inky black or ghostly white; buttercream or slate blue; sage green or darkest myrtle. Some favor even more outlandish hues: baby pink; mustard; salmon; shiny, fiery red. Some aren't content with a single shade at all, so they tart themselves up in stripes, mottles, marbling, and speckles.

Welcome to Cucurbita, the genus of pumpkins, squashes, and some gourds -- the edible and ornamental fruits of fall. And once you recognize the variety of shapes and shades, all kinds of decorative possibilities open up. Why stick to the standard orange icon of fall? Think pale and monochromatic, bright and bold, eerily enigmatic, or elegantly dark and moody.

Although the pumpkin did not become associated with Halloween until the mid-nineteenth century, its cultivation has been traced as far back as 8000 B.C., to Mesoamerica, where it was grown for its tasty seeds, not its pulp. American Indians taught the pilgrims how to cultivate them, and the seeds eventually made their way across the oceans, to every corner of the globe except Antarctica.

Thank the reproductive indiscretions of the domesticated species for a stunning variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and even ethnicities. Kabocha, the so-called Japanese squash, sports knobby black-green skin that's often striped in celadon. The rinds of Australian squashes, such as 'Jarrahdale' and 'Queensland Blue,' vary from dusty gray to greenish blue.

French pumpkins, such as the elegant 'Rouge Vif d'Etampes,' dubbed the Cinderella pumpkin, tend to be low to the ground and often display deeply ridged lobes. 'Iran,' a large, smooth-skinned heirloom, seems painted with splashes of green, gray, white, and persimmon.

'Galeuse d'Eysines' and 'Marina di Chioggia' are both pocked with bumps caused by a buildup of sugars underneath their skin and look scary even before they're carved.

There are five common species of Cucurbita: ficifolia (chilacayote squash and Malabar gourd), maxima (Hubbard, 'Lakota,' buttercup, and winter squashes), mixta (cushaw squash), moschata ('Shakertown Field' and 'Long Island Cheese' pumpkins), and pepo (jack-o'-lantern varieties, delicata squashes, ornamental gourds).

The wanton willingness of each species to cross-pollinate with members of its own tribe can create some curious offspring.

So fashion a Gothic statement with the darkest squashes of Asia. Echo the golden colors of foliage in a centerpiece. Carve a lacy belt around the centers of an array of pale pumpkins. Go ahead. Embrace the global goblin globe. Don't be afraid.

How-Tos
Vulture's Cage
Filigree Pumpkin
Jack-o'-Clock
Pumpkin Lantern
Spider Squash
Graveyard Ghost

Comments (1)

  • 30 Sep, 2013

    This is one of my favorite stories, I have saved this issue for many years and each year I am inspired to visit the local nurseries to collect my own family of pumpkin varietals.