October is just one month away from Thanksgiving, which leads me to the question… who was the genius behind pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread and all things pumpkin?
Why of all plants did someone choose the pumpkin? According to botanists the fruit is the part of the plant that develops from the flower. It is also the part of the plant that contains the seeds. The other parts of the plants are considered vegetables. These include the stems, leaves, roots and the flower bud.
Therefore pumpkins are fruit! If you are eating the flower, then technically you are eating a vegetable. Pumpkins originated from the gourd family cucurbitae, which includes gourds, squashes, and zucchinis. Pumpkins belong to the genus and species cucurbita pepo. Cucurbita seeds were found in the caves of Ecuador dating back 12,000 years ago. Cultivation of cucurbita seeds predates the agricultural harvest of corn by 2,000 years. Pumpkins are a cultivar of gourds. A cultivar is plant that was cultivated and selected for its desirable traits from a previously wild ancestor. The ancestor of the pumpkin was a wild gourd that grew in hot dry climates spanning from northern Mexico to the south west of the United States of America. In fact if you go hiking late in summer you can see them growing in canyons, along trails and even along the freeways.
The large fruits of wild squash are edible especially when young, otherwise mature fruit develop bitter compounds that make eating them rather unpleasant. Native Americans consumed the seeds, flowers, used the fruit as containers and the tap root as soap. Squashes including pumpkins can be stored in cellars for much of winter without special care. Their natural growing season is late summer to mid winter, which makes them a perfect candidate for pies, bread and soups during the winter months, when regular fruits may not be available for harvest.
Squash varieties can bloom year round. There are over 960 species within the curcurbita family. Some squashes are better equipped to handle the winter months and are known as winter squashes. Generally winter squashes have thicker skins than the summer variety. The most popular squash for the upcoming winter months is the pumpkin.
What are some of the benefits of consuming winter squashes and pumpkins?
The rich orange color associated with pumpkins come from carotenoids such as alpha, beta-carotene and lycopene. Carotenoids are powerful antioxidants, which are known for reducing inflammation in chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, arthritis and may help prevent certain types of cancers.
Winter squashes have naturally occurring B vitamins which help with protein metabolism, hemoglobin production, nerve cell health, DNA repair and production. B vitamins help with stress, anxiety, depression and heart disease. Squashes also contain folic acid which is important in preventing anemia and according to some studies may also help prevent Alzheimer’s. The fruit is also a rich source of thiamine, which is important in carbohydrate metabolism and is essential to heart and muscle function.
Along with thiamine, winter squashes also contain the following B vitamins: niacin, which aids digestion, promotes healthy skin and nerve function; biotin, which helps with metabolism and is essential for growing cells; and riboflavin, which is important in the metabolism of carbohydrates along with maintaining energy levels.
In addition to B vitamins, pumpkins contain fiber, potassium, iron, and vitamin A. In 1 cup of pumpkin puree there is 7.1 grams of fiber, 3.4 grams of iron, and 2 mg of vitamin A. Carotenoids and vitamin A are important for eye health and for maintaining strong bones and teeth. Along with the nutrients listed above 1 cup of pumpkin puree also contains a full serving of vitamin E, which helps with immunity. Having a strong immune system during the winter months was very critical, especially for the Plymouth settlers, who had to endure the harsh New England winters.
The seeds of squash and pumpkins are both delicious and nutritious. As much as 50% of a seed is oil. Within the oil, 38% to 65% is linoleic acid, an essential omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid. Thirty-one percent of the seed is protein. Sugars in the form of starch can be found in both the flesh of the fruit and the tap root. Approximately 1 cup of cooked pumpkin contains up to 12 g of total carbohydrates, half of which is dietary fiber.
There is a very good reason to love pumpkin, not only does it tastes good, but it is also surprisingly good for us.