By ROGER AMSDEN, for THE LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — Last year's first-ever Laconia Pumpkin Festival served as the inspiration for an educational project at Prescott Farm Environmental Education Center on White Oaks Road, which has more than 20 varieties of pumpkins from all over the world growing on a quarter-acre pumpkin patch this year.
Will Robinson, camp director and environmental educator, said he approached trustees of the center after last fall's festival with the idea that it would be a great educational experience, for both the center's young campers and visitors, to see the great variety of pumpkins raised around the world and to better appreciate the important role they played in both the lives of Native Americans and the first European settlers.
Robinson said pumpkins are good for more than just creating jack-o'-lanterns and Thanksgiving pies, and have a long and fascinating history. Native to South and Central America, pumpkins are the oldest domesticated plant, dating back 7,500 to 9,000 years, some 4,000 years before corn and beans, according to Robinson.
He said the first English settlers in the New World found pumpkins grown by Native Americans in the same field, along with corn and beans, that would form the basis of a home-grown and reliable food supply essential to their survival.
“They're very easy to grow but never became a commodity crop, like corn and beans, so they've been sort of overlooked. But when you didn't have other kinds of food, they were the default food supply. They kept well into the winter and the flesh and seeds were both edible and a healthy,” says Robinson.
He said pumpkins are a variety of winter squash, and, since some squash share the same botanical classifications as pumpkins, the names are frequently used interchangeably. One often-used botanical classification relies on the characteristics of the stems: pumpkin stems are more rigid, prickly and angular, with an approximate 5 degree angle, than squash stems, which are generally softer, more rounded, and more flared where joined to the fruit.
Pumpkins became popular across Europe once the seeds were brought back to France, England, Spain and Italy and soon spread to Asia where they are today grown in places like China, India, Southeast Asia and Japan.
Readily identifiable pumpkins grown at Prescott Farm this summer include three varieties of Connecticut field pumpkins, an heirloom pumpkin which is one of the oldest in existence. The largest is the Howden, weighing in at 15 to 25 pounds, and the archetypal jack-o'-lantern pumpkin. There's also a smaller sugar pumpkin, as well as miniature “Jack be Little,” widely used for decorating but which is also edible.
Other varieties included the Nantucket, a green pumpkin resembling a zucchini but with the traditional orange flesh; Candy Roasters, a sweet pumpkin grown in Southern Appalachia; and a Lakota from the Southwest with red stripes which is more akin to winter squash.
There are also two large varieties from France, a Juane Gros de Paris, which can weigh as much as 100 pounds, and a Musque de Provence, which grows to 20 pounds or more and resembles a wheel of cheese. And there are pumpkins grown in Iran and Japan, as well as an Apache Giant native to Arizona, a Seminole pumpkin from the Everglades and a Chihuahua pumpkin from Mexico.
Robinson, who is originally from Georgia and lives with his wife and three sons in Tamworth, says that he expects that over 1,000 pounds of pumpkins will be harvested from the pumpkin patch. He said that in addition to using them in meals for workers at Prescott Farm, he is hoping to convince chefs specializing in locally-grown foods to use them in their menus.
Will Robinson, camp director and environmental educator at Prescott Farm, with a Nantucket pumpkin, which resembles a zucchini. The farm has raised over 20 varieties of pumpkins this summer as part of its educational program. (Roger Amsden photo/The Laconia Daily Sun)
An Iranian pumpkin with distinctive red flesh is among the more than 20 varieties of pumpkins grown in a pumpkin patch at Prescott Farm. (Roger Amsden photo/The Laconia Daily Sun)
Will Robinson, camp director and environmental educator at Prescott Farm, shows a large Musque de Provence pumpkin, one of the most popular varieties in France. The farm has a pumpkin patch where over 20 varieties of pumpkins were grown this summer as part of its educational program. (Roger Amsden/The Laconia Daily Sun)
Pumpkins can vary widely in color, from orange and green to white, like those shown above. (Roger Amsden/for the Laconia Daily Sun)