Linda Geist
  • Jack-o'-lantern. Public domain photo by Man vyi.
    Jack-o'-lantern. Public domain photo by Man vyi.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Americans are projected to spend more than $800 million on Halloween pumpkins this year, said University of Missouri Extension horticulturist David Trinklein. The U.S. pumpkin industry can thank Irish immigrants and a mythical character named “Stingy Jack” for Americans’ rush to buy carving pumpkins in October.

According to Irish legend, Stingy Jack was a notorious rogue who managed to trick the devil on several occasions during his life. Upon his death, Stingy Jack appeared at the gates of hell to learn his eternal fate.

Having already been fooled by Jack on multiple occasions, the devil wanted nothing more to do with him and refused to let him enter. Instead, he sent him off into the night with only a burning lump of coal in a hollowed-out turnip to guide his way. According to the legend, Jack and his lantern have roamed the Earth ever since.

The association of jack-o’-lanterns with the end of the harvest season is related to the Celtic festival of Samhain, observed on Oct. 31, which today is also observed as All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween. Both festivals are associated with the spirits of the dead roaming the Earth.

European immigrants to America continued the tradition of making jack-o’-lanterns but found pumpkins much easier to carve than turnips. Though pumpkin is a dietary staple throughout the world, in the United States this colorful member of the gourd family is sold primarily for decoration. “This fall, millions of Americans will make an annual pilgrimage to a ‘pumpkin patch’ or retail outlet to purchase a vegetable they are likely to look at but, unfortunately, not eat,” said Trinklein.

As a food, pumpkin offers many health benefits. It is high in beta carotene (vitamin A) and is a good source of dietary fiber. The spices in pumpkin pie have health benefits of their own. “Not many people could tolerate taking allspice directly to benefit from its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and stomach-calming properties. However, consumed in a piece of pumpkin pie, it tastes rather delightful,” said Trinklein.

Plant breeders today focus on improving pumpkin’s ornamental appeal rather than its “table quality,” he said. Driven by consumer demand, pumpkins today come in many different colors, shapes and sizes.

Most of the newer varieties mature into a deep orange color much earlier than pumpkins of the past. Many modern varieties now bear a large, dark green stem or “handle” for convenience. Another new development is pumpkins with rinds covered with warts, whichmake jack-o’-lanterns look even more ghoulish. In contrast, white pumpkins are now available that make faces painted on them more “spooktacular.”

When selecting a pumpkin for fall decoration, check for blemishes. Also, look for fully mature pumpkins by using the “thumbnail test”: If you can pierce the pumpkin rind with your thumbnail, the pumpkin was not fully mature when harvested and likely will not store well.

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