Pumpkins: A Spooky Tradition
BY: Jennifer McDonald, Mobile County Master Gardener, www.mobilecountymastergardeners.org
A late October evening, the hollow dark and spooky
The teacher rides with shaking hands, though townsfolk call him kooky.
An eerie legend haunts his mind, he’s numb with dread, and pale
Every noise he’s sure the headless ghost that rides this trail
Suddenly it’s before him, cloaked figure on dark horse
On its lap, round and dark, its severed head, of course.
On hind legs the horse arose, it cries a horrid wail
The teacher knows for sure he’ll never live to tell this tale
It charges toward him swiftly, hurling ghastly head in attack
The teacher’s screams heard from town, he ran and never looked back
In morning’s light the townsfolk search for what gave him such fright.
A cheerful pumpkin, round and grinning, the only thing in sight!
There are very few things that say “fall” like pumpkins. From the gothic tale of Sleepy Hollow and its many adaptations (including mine above), to the spiced lattes cradled in the mugs of countless women in cozy cardigans.
This beloved winter squash is native to Mexico and the southern United States, and it’s one of the oldest known domesticated plants. Pumpkins grow on vines of various types and lengths, depending on the cultivar.
The ideal planting time is June for harvesting around Halloween, so mark your calendars if you missed your chance this year. Generally, pumpkins grow wonderfully in our area. For best results look for disease-resistant cultivars. Drip irrigation is also recommended to reduce disease.
They should be harvested when the tendril closest to the pumpkin starts to wilt. Use a sharp knife to cut the pumpkin from the vine leaving a stem about 6 inches long. After harvesting, pumpkins should be cured by ideally keeping them at 80-85 degrees with 75 to 80% relative humidity for 10 to 20 days. They should be kept dry and provided with good air circulation.
Once cured they are ready for use in delicious pies, savory dishes, canning, and decorative purposes, including the beloved jack-o-lantern.
Jack-o-lanterns have been a Halloween tradition for centuries. The idea came from an Irish myth about a man called Stingy Jack. After playing tricks to take advantage of the Devil for his own gain, he manipulated him into promising not to take his soul when he died. After Jack’s death he was turned away by both God and the Devil and cast into the darkness alone. He lit his way through the night using burning coal placed in a carved-out turnip, which he uses to roam the earth as a ghostly figure known as “Jack of the Lantern.”
Superstitious people began to carve scary faces into turnips and potatoes to put in their windows to ward off Stingy Jack and other spooky wandering spirits on All Hallows Eve, the annual night when dead spirits were believed to roam free amongst the living. The tradition eventually made its way to America where it became common to use native pumpkins.
These days kids young and old love carving spooky faces or elaborate designs into pumpkins to celebrate the Halloween season. Unfortunately, these fun creations can start to shrivel and rot within days and become overtaken by mold. There are a few tricks you can use to get the most out of your jack-o-lantern.
Wash and dry your pumpkin before carving and sterilize your cutting tools to reduce the spread of germs. While it’s common to cut off the top before scooping out the insides, it works better to cut off the bottom and work from that end. This prevents moisture from pooling at the bottom, slowing the rotting process, and it also makes it very easy to set the pumpkin over your candle instead of trying to reach inside from the top.
When your masterpiece is complete, gently wash or spray the pumpkin with a bleach solution (one tablespoon bleach per gallon of water) to help kill off any microorganisms. Allow the pumpkin to air dry and then rub inside and out with a light coat of petroleum jelly or olive oil to slow the drying process. If you plan to light your jack-o-lantern on multiple nights, make sure to use LED candles or glow sticks instead of flames.
Now it’s ready to face the ghostly spirits that wander the night, on horseback, foot, or broom.