Pumpkin Selection

Pumpkin Selection

Q. How should we select pumpkins for cooking and decorating?

A. From supermarkets to farm stands and backyard gardens, fall brings vast displays of colorful pumpkins. Pumpkins, as well as squash and cucumbers, are members of the plant family Cucurbita, and originated in the Americas. In recent years, many unique cultivars have been introduced, along with distinctive heirloom varieties.

Whether for cooking or decoration, a good pumpkin has the same external characteristics. It should be free from scratches, soft or rotten spots, and cracks, and should feel heavy relative to its size. Shape is unimportant. There should be 3 to 4 inches of dry stem attached to the pumpkin. If you are cutting a pumpkin from the vine, use a sharp knife and leave at least a few inches of stem. Allow the stem to dry on the pumpkin, as removing the stem will shorten its life. Do not lift or carry the pumpkin by the stem.

Almost any pumpkin variety can be used for decorating, and a wide range of sizes, shapes, colors, as well as secondary characteristics like mottling, heavy ribbing, and warts are available. Recently, the heirloom Cinderella pumpkin (shaped liked Cinderella’s coach), ‘Rouge Vif d’Etampes’, has become popular. Medium to large orange pumpkins are commonly used for carving. Uncarved pumpkins can be kept for several weeks, if they are stored in a cool, dry place out of reach of rodents. Carving greatly shortens the life of a pumpkin as does displaying it in full sun, or in a place accessible to hungry squirrels. Decorating with dark markers or paint instead of carving your pumpkin will prolong its life.

Pumpkin is an excellent source of vitamin A and fiber, and can be prepared in a number of ways besides pies, including muffins, soups, curries, and simply roasting. The larger decorative pumpkins are not good choices for cooking, as their flesh is often bland and very stringy. Smaller pie pumpkins with sweeter, firmer flesh are preferred. The heirloom ‘Small Sugar’—also known as ‘New England Pie’—is the classic, but other varieties such ‘Winter Luxury’ and ‘Rouge Vif d’Etampes’ are excellent choices. Finally, there are varieties with hull-less seeds that are great for roasting and salting for snacks (“pepitas”). ‘Naked Bear’, ‘Beppo’, and a three-use variety, ‘Triple Treat’, are some examples.

Please email plantinfo@chicagobotanic.org for more information.