It’s the time of year for all things pumpkin. But what do you really know about pumpkins? They are generally considered to be a kind of winter squash, like butternut, acorn, or spaghetti squash. However, they do not fit neatly into different species the way you might think. The three most popular species are Cucurbita maxima, Cucurbita moschata, and Cucurbita pepo. C. Maxima contains all the varieties of massive pumpkins you might see on display at harvest festivals, as well as buttercup and kabocha varieties, among others. C. moschata includes butternut, tropical pumpkins like calabaza, and many varieties used for pie fillings like long island cheese pumpkins. C. pepo includes most of the earlier producing summer squash like zucchini, but also includes the traditionally carved varieties of pumpkins and acorn winter squash.
Squash are incredibly healthy and nutritious. All parts of the Cucurbita sp. of plants are edible, from the roots to the flowers and seeds. The fruit and seeds are particularly nutritious and have been studied for many years for their health-benefiting compounds. They contain many vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals, as well as very high concentrations of carotenoids. The seeds contain many good fats and proteins, and the oil from processed seeds is useful for both culinary and medicinal applications. Some of the compounds found highly concentrated in pumpkins have been shown to have anti-cancer, anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, or anti-diabetic functions.
The many kinds of squash mean that many varieties are understudied, and we still have much to learn about their nutrition and growth. The many cultivars, both wild and grown also provide opportunities for breeding new lines of squash with different resistances to pests or diseases, longer or earlier flowering times, drought resistance, or poor soil tolerance. Recent work at the University of New Hampshire has looked into crossbreeding many lines of squashes together to achieve significant resistance to powdery mildew, a common fungus on plants all over the world. Commercially available resistant varieties only have one gene responsible for the resistance, known as Pm-0. The best resistance in the study came from a combination of two genes, Pm-0, crossed with Pm-A. The genes are located in two different loci and might be operating in two different ways, so the resistance is better than either gene alone. After some stabilization of the genome, it could be bred into other varieties and sold commercially. This could allow farmers to be less dependent on fungicides. Future research into pumpkins could yield many benefits for us to be healthier in many ways.