Thanksgiving is coming up and one traditional dessert that will grace many tables is pumpkin pie. Lots of us take the easy route and purchase one from a store, making it one less thing to worry about. But maybe you’re saving that pumpkin left over from Halloween décor and are planning to try your hand at making homemade pumpkin pie. You might want to check a few recipes first — pumpkins are not actually the best choice of winter squash for pumpkin pies.
There are several species of winter squash, and all in the genus Cucurbita. Pumpkins are Cucurbita pepo whereas the favorite squash for pumpkin pies are in the group Cucurbita moschata. Many of the top recipes recommend using butternut squash because the flesh is creamier, sweeter, less stringy and firmer than the flesh of pumpkins, which is bland and watery. One of the best known brands of canned pumpkin, Libby’s, grows its own variety, a Dickinson pumpkin that looks similar to the butternut squash. So if you want to make a pumpkin pie from scratch, the easiest one to find at local stores is likely a butternut squash.
Another winter squash popular among local gardeners is the Seminole pumpkin, which is also in the same species as the butternut squash. These hardy pumpkins have an interesting history because they were grown by the Calusa, Creek, Miccosukee and Seminole Native American tribes. They were often referred to as “tree pumpkins” because the Seminole Indians planted them at the base of a tree and the vines climbed the tree, producing pumpkins dangling from the tree branches. During a voyage in 1774, Philadelphia botanist William Bartram described trees along the banks of the St. Johns River in Palatka adorned with yellow squash that resembled oranges. They were considered to be a valued food crop that required minimal effort. They were also used as vessels for drinking and eating.
In south Florida, Seminole pumpkins can be grown year-round but in north Florida they are planted in March along with our other warm season vegetables. Master Gardener Diane Seymore grows them each year at our Superior Street Community Garden. These plants take a lot of space so there is a 500-square-foot area dedicated just for their production. For starters, she saves the seeds from the biggest pumpkins from the previous season. Then she plants those seeds in containers in late January to produce transplants for the March garden. She creates nine raised hills in the 500-square-foot area and places four transplants on each hill. They can be direct-seeded but starting with transplants gives you a jump start on beating the heat and the critters.
For fertilizer, she incorporates composted horse manure into the soil prior to planting, and adds organic fertilizer at planting time. Because of the intense pressure of insect problems in our climate, she fertilizes sparingly two more times during the growing season with an organic fertilizer. The vines are extremely vigorous and some will grow up to 20 feet or more in length. If plants outgrow their space, Diane gently redirects the vines back into their designated area or clips the vines to keep the plants in bounds. They can also be trained to a trellis, but the structure would have to be very sturdy to support the weight once the vine produces fruit.
Like many other winter squash, Seminole pumpkins can be harvested young and eaten as a summer squash. At this stage, fruit are pale green in color and the taste is similar to an eggplant. But most people prefer to wait until they mature and develop a hard, thick skin. Although the shape and color varies, even on the same vine, they are typically round or pear shaped with ridges and the color varies from dark beige to dull orange. Fruit are typically harvested 60 to 90 days after planting. At our community garden site, Diane harvested 272 pounds of Seminole squash on July 9. Fruit ranged in weight from one to four pounds each.
The flesh of the Seminole pumpkin is orange and the taste is similar to butternut squash, but a little sweeter. These pumpkins can be used in recipes that call for butternut or Hubbard squash. Diane uses them to make soups, breads and pies but her favorite recipe is sausage-stuffed Seminole pumpkin.
One of the reasons gardeners really love growing this plant is that it holds up in Florida’s heat and humidity with minimal care. Although some references say they are pest-free, Diane said she has had a few insect problems like armyworms and wireworms. Still, they continue to thrive and produce, and are not affected by the squash vine borer, which is usually the kiss of death for other squash plants. Because they are a type of winter squash, they can be stored for up to six months. Diane stores hers in a dark air-conditioned space on wire racks. Avoid storing any winter squash with exterior blemishes and plan to eat those within a month or two of harvesting.
Although Seminole pumpkins may be difficult to find at local markets, you might consider purchasing seed to plant your own Seminole pumpkin patch next year. Also, forgo using pumpkin for pumpkin pie and purchase butternut squash instead. Happy Thanksgiving!!
Terry Brite DelValle is a horticulture extension agent with the Duval County Extension Service and the University of Florida/IFAS.