Pumpkins are an integral part of Halloween today just as they were in the pioneer times of North America - though the foods and celebrations have now become far more theatrical and macabre.
Originally, Halloween was the last of the three pagan harvest festivals for those Celtic immigrants who remembered the old ways. It was the last chance for pumpkins, apples and nuts to be gathered and the early pioneer pumpkin pies reflected that end-of-season gathering.
Unlike today's pies, the early pioneer pie was the shell of a pumpkin into which nuts, apples, raisins and other fruits were placed. It was usually the centerpiece of the supper table. Later, when times were more removed from hard-scrabble farming, the pumpkin pie we know today began to be produced.
But in earlier days when surviving the winter was a real concern, pumpkins saved many a family from starvation. Those heritage pumpkins grew very large, very fast and, though the inside flesh of some was quite stringy, their thick outside skins helped them to keep better than many other foods.
But they still had to last until spring crops were available. That's why the pioneers sliced pumpkins and hung them to dry from roof beams. They also made pumpkins into sauces, puddings, soups, stews, bread, muffins, cookies and, of course pumpkin pies.
There is a little pioneer verse which runs: 'Instead of pottage and puddings and custards and pies, our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies. We have pumpkin at morning and pumpkin at noon. If it was not for pumpkin we should be undoon.'
Pumpkin blossom tea was also drunk in season and pumpkin flowers were said to be delicious when fried. The pioneers would have used only male flowers since every female flower is a potential pumpkin fruit. Female flowers have a fat little central ovary that's easy to identify.
Pumpkin seeds were also roasted and eaten. They were believed to be an excellent aphrodisiac - certainly they are very nutritious.
The seeds and the shells were also said to be eaten by First Nations people who baked squash whole among ash in their firepits.
Often pumpkin was grown in a combination of corn, beans and pumpkin known as the 'Three Sisters.' The beans fixed nitrogen which nourished the corn. The corn served as poles for the beans to climb while the squash acted as a thick living mulch which was reputed to be impenetrable enough to deter raccoons.
Old tradition says that pumpkins grown for carving should be planted on Good Friday to allow them to acquire the power to combat evil spirits roaming on Halloween.
But another tradition says pumpkin should be planted in a fruitful sign, which in our area would be Taurus (May). Since Good Friday falls sometimes in April (that's Aries, a barren sign), gardeners here usually need to plant in the favourable temperatures of May and take their chances with evil spirits.
Pumpkins are heavy feeders best grown on hills or raised beds so that they have good drainage. They need lots of water, room to roam and nutritious places where the far-flung vining roots can find food.
Anne Marrison is happy to answer garden questions. Send them to amarrison@ shaw.ca
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