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Pumpkins, Jack-O’-Lanterns and Halloween. Oh My!

It’s fall! Pumpkins. Halloween. Pumpkins. Harvest. Did we say pumpkins? More on the history and traditions surrounding… PUMPKINS! Plus, a list of local pumpkin patches.

pumpkins-kid October is here! And you can tell by that crisp snap in the night air and the signs that Halloween is near. As you drive through the farm lands of our county you can see local farm fields filled with an array of pumpkins and winter squash getting ready to celebrate the harvest’s bounty.

Vegetable? Fruit? Scary monster? What is a pumpkin?

Did you know that pumpkins are one of the most popular crops in the United States? 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins are produced each year! And our state of California is one of the top pumpkin-producing states. pumpkins-wartsWhat exactly is a pumpkin? Most folks would say it’s a vegetable and that would be wrong – pumpkins are a fruit. Fruits are defined as being the part of the plant which contains seeds. The average pumpkin contains about a cup of seeds, so they are most definitely a fruit. They are a warm-weather crop that is usually planted in early July and it takes between 85 and 125 days for a pumpkin to mature. Pumpkins are a member of the Cucurbitaceae (also known as cucurbit and gourd) family. This plant family consists of around a hundred genera including pumpkins, squash, cucumbers, luffas, watermelons and melons. Most of the plants in this family are grown on vines; however there are a few exceptions. There are four main species: Maxima, Pepo, Moschata and Mixta (also known as Argyrosperma).

The word on pumpkins

The word pumpkin originated from the Greek word Pepõn which means large melon. The word gradually was morphed by the French, English and, eventually, Americans into the word pumpkin. Pumpkins and squash are believed to have originated in the ancient Americas. Archeologists have determined that variations of squash and pumpkins were cultivated along river and creek banks along with sunflowers and beans. Pumpkins are very versatile in their colors, shapes and uses for cooking. Most parts of the pumpkin are edible, including the fleshy shell, the seeds, the leaves and even the flowers.

Native Americans relationship with pumpkins

pumpkins-thanksgivingEarly Native Americans roasted pumpkin strips over campfires and used them as a food source, long before the arrival of European explorers. Pumpkins helped Native Americans make it through long, cold winters. They used the sweet flesh in numerous ways: roasted, baked, parched, boiled and dried. They ate pumpkin seeds and also used them as a medicine. The blossoms were added to stews. Dried pumpkin could be stored and ground into flour. Indians introduced pumpkins and squashes to the Pilgrims. Pumpkins were an important food source for the pilgrims, as they stored well, which meant they would have a nutritious food source during the winter months. It is documented that pumpkins were served at the second Thanksgiving celebration. The Pilgrims were also known to make pumpkin beer. They fermented a combination of persimmons, hops, maple sugar and pumpkin to make this early colonial brew. Without pumpkins many of the early settlers might have died from starvation.

For pottage and puddings and custards and pies,

Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies:

We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,

If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon!

American pilgrim verse, circa 1633

The Great Pumpkin and the origin of the term “Jack-O’-Lantern”

There are many theories as to the origins of jack-o’-lanterns and Halloween. The most popular originated from an Irish myth about a man nicknamed Stingy Jack. After several encounters tricking the Devil to his own advantage, upon his death, Jack’s soul, rejected by God for entrance into heaven, was sent off by the Devil into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with it ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as Jack of the Lantern, and then, simply Jack-O’-Lantern. Early jack-o’-lanterns were carved from turnips and potatoes by the Irish and Scottish and carried in Celtic celebrations. The English used beets. Lumps of coal were lit on fire and placed inside the hollow root vegetables. When European settlers arrived in America, they found that our hearty American pumpkin varieties were well suited to being carved into jack-o’-lanterns. In America, a traditional jack-o’-lantern refers to a variety of pumpkin grown for its suitability for carving. They are fairly large in size, have upright strong walls, and most importantly a large hollow cavity.

Halloween, the celebration of community

In the late 1800s there was a movement to turn Halloween into a celebration emphasizing community and neighborhood activities and parties. This is the Halloween we know and celebrate today. Today, jack-o-lanterns are a symbol of harvest celebrations. Many families have made a tradition of heading out to the local pumpkin patch to choose just the right pumpkin for their harvest Halloween celebration.

Local pumpkin patches

Ventura County has several great local pumpkin patches. Here is a list of some we like best:


McGrath Family Farm U-Pick Pumpkin Patch 1012 West Ventura Blvd Camarillo, CA 93010 Farm education, walking tours and visits to the Animal Center. Call ahead for availability. Admission: $4 per person plus whatever you pick


McGrath Brothers Great Pacific Pumpkins  pumpkins-man 5100 Olivas Park Dr Ventura, CA 93003 (805) 644-1235 OpEn October 1-31 from 9:00 am to dusk Experience fall family fun: take a hayride, challenge yourself in the hay maze, visit the animals, or just enjoy picking your own pumpkin. Admission: FREE, pay for what you purchase. Hay rides: $2.00, Free for children under 2. Some attractions require tickets and are extra. McGrath Street Pumpkin Patch  5156 McGrath St Ventura, CA 93003 (805) 658-9972 October 1 – 31. Open from 9 am to dusk Animals, hay rides, face painting, pumpkin sculpting and pony rides Admission: FREE, pay for what you pick.


Boccali Ranch Pumpkin Patch  3277 East Ojai Avenue Ojai, CA 93023 October 3 – 31. Open from 10:00 am to dusk, weekends 10:00 – 9:00 pm Selection of pumpkins from tiny to extra-large “Big Mac” pumpkins, a wide variety of squash, gourds, Indian corn, and seasonal farm-fresh produce. A hay maze for the kids, daytime hayrides on the weekends from 11:00 am – 5 pm. Admission: FREE


Fillmore & Western Railway 351 Santa Clara St Fillmore, CA 93015 (805) 524-0330:  Ride a vintage train to “Ichabog,” our private pumpkin patch at Loose Caboose Garden Center and Gift Emporium. Pick the perfect jack-o’-lantern. Activities and attractions include: Jolly Jumps, Carousel, Arts & Crafts Booths, BBQ food booth, face painting and much, much more. Saturday and Sunday, October 3 – 31 at 10:30am and 2pm. Admission: Adults $20, Child 2-3 $10, Youth 4-12 $12


Underwood Family Farms pumpkins-lanterns 3370 Sunset Valley Rd Moorpark, CA 93021 (805) 529-3690 From October 3 – 31,  9:00 am – 6:00 pm Admission: $6.00 per person Monday – Friday and $15.00 on weekends during the Fall Harvest Festival. Children under two years of age are admitted free.

Image credits: tidefan and Kat Merrick

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