The Incredible Seminole Pumpkin
Climbing through the canopies of my apple trees, clambering over the fences and trailing across the lawn, there is a “volunteer” pumpkin that reseeds itself year after year. Although other squash and pumpkins cross-pollinate readily when grown in close proximity—producing inferior and sometimes unrecognizable, tasteless fruits the following season—this pumpkin seems unchanged. In late October, when other squash and pumpkin vines have long succumbed to disease, molds and the cold, this squash is merrily throwing out fresh, new, vigorous runners and, as the older portion of the vine bearing fruit dies off, the new runners produce a continues supply of fresh fruit well into the fall.
This incredibly hardy, prolific and unusual vegetable is called the Seminole Pumpkin (actually botanically classified in the same family as our cherished butternut). It is believed to have originated on the tropical riverbank shores and swampland hammocks of Florida. It is an easy crop to grow, needing fertilization only at planting time, and does not need any protection from insects. Although quite thin, the rind of the pumpkin is fairly hard, and stores for long periods; well over a year at room temperature. And it is the most delicious pumpkin I’ve ever tasted when at its best.
Its fruit is variable in size and form. It may be nearly round, oblate, oval, oblong or pear shaped, and is generally small enough to easily handle in the kitchen. The skin color is usually buff yellow, often with pale spots or orange streaks. Some fruits are partially striped with green, with the flesh orange to reddish orange and very rich, resembling winter squash in flavor, with varying degrees of sweetness. Its growing preference is to twine up tree trunks, draping its hanging fruits through the canopy, though it performs just as well left to run rampart on the ground.
This attractive little pumpkin has an unexpected lineage and very interesting history. When Panfilo de Narvaez, the Spanish conquistador, was on an expedition in 1528 near what is now Tallahassee, Florida, he saw Seminole Pumpkins under cultivation by Native Americans. Another of the earliest recorded observations of wild, climbing, gourd-like pumpkins in Florida appeared in the memoir of Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda, who was a captive of the Indians and recorded his experience when he returned to Spain in 1575, describing the pumpkins growing in trees around the native American camps. And later William Bertram the American naturalist who “searched the Floridas for rare and useful productions of nature” wrote in his journal in 1774 a description of the Florida landscape. “The trees along riverbanks are adorned with garlands of various species of morning glory, moonflower and squash and gourds which ran and spread over bushes and trees 20 or 30 yards high”.
No one was sure of what species of pumpkins or gourds they were at the time, but from more recent writers it was agreed that the Seminole people living in the Lake Okeechobee Glades and Big Cypress Swamp raised not only small patches of corn, bananas and root crops, but squashes and gourds, and that they had indeed observed the large butternut-like Seminole Pumpkin as well as a diminutive gourd clambering through surrounding trees at their camps.
The diminutive gourd they were referring to has since been determined to be a very distinctive and unusual gourd which today is almost extinct due to the draining of the wetlands and other human manipulation of the Everglades. It is called the Okeechobee gourd (Cucurbita okeechobeensis).
Because Florida has experienced a population growth more rapid than perhaps anywhere else in the U.S., many plant species have suffered or been lost altogether. In the wilds of the Everglades and around its lakes these climbing gourds self-seeded year after year in the hammocks of the wetlands, scrambling up large stands of custard apple trees (Annona glabra). Today these custard apple forests are badly diminished by flooding and the wild gourds that adorned their branches are rarely seen.
The Okeechobee gourd is the size of a large orange, with a skin reputed to be as hard as a coconut. I suppose that skin protects it from the wet environment and keeps its seeds fresh and viable for years until it might, by chance, drift in to the hammocks and find the proper environment to germinate. Although not edible by human standards due to the distinctly bitter curcurbitacins that it contains, it was an important fruit all the same. The seeds are very nutritious and the fruit could be transported very long distances. It is believed, as well, that it may have been used as a detergent.
Today the Okeechobee gourd may have more value to farmers worldwide, as it is a natural source of genetic resistance to powdery mildew, bean yellow mosaic, cucumber mosaic and tobacco ringspot virus. Its seed oils are high in linoleic acid and polyunsaturated fatty acid. It also has tested as having the highest content of bitter cucurbitacins, which naturally attract corn root maggots and cucumber beetles. This attribute makes it an excellent candidate as a trap crop for integrated pest management. There exists a gourd of Mexican origin with similar disease-resistance qualities whose genes for powdery mildew and cucumber mosaic virus resistance have already been transferred to commercial squash cultivars. Its powdery mildew resistance is now protecting butternut squash crops around the world. In addition it is being bred into the most widely-grown squash and pumpkin species, helping them return to having an intrinsic resistance against pests and disease, which helps to limit the use of chemicals.
A good example of the importance of protecting wild plant species can be found in the history of sugar cane cultivation. Before plant breeders could find sources of resistance to sugarcane mosaic, the virus had devastated three quarters of the crop. Fortunately, genes for resistance were found in wild sugar canes from Indonesia and other countries of tropical Asia, and these species were used for developing resistance to bacteria, rats, and fungal root rot in recent years. It is believed that if no wild relatives had been used, there would probably not be a viable sugarcane industry any place in the world. The loss of many of the wild plant species like this one as well as others like the Okeechobee gourd could spell disaster for the future of our food as well as our health.
I have often wondered how my Seminole Pumpkins could keep reappearing as the same fruit, having grown alongside other squash species and seemingly not cross pollinating, as is usually the case, producing a completely different squash. I have since read that the Okeechobee gourd and the Seminole Pumpkin species can produce partially fertile hybrids if cross pollinated, suggesting that the Seminole Pumpkin may already be a hybrid produced by the accidental crossing between the wild Okeechobee gourd during their long association in the wild. The Florida botanist Julia Martin has proposed that the Seminole Pumpkin, “with its hardiness and self perpetuation, together with the great variation, hardness of rind, size, form and color makes it a very unique squash and most likely a hybrid cross pollinated with the wild Okeechobee gourd”. Seminole Pumpkins carry the same wild traits as the gourd, with their extremely hard rinds, green and white striping on young fruits and an occasional strange aftertaste from low doses of bitter curcurbitacins. These are all characteristics that the gourd could have passed on to the pumpkin.
It is quite amazing how the plant continues to thrive, still producing runners and fruit, practically until the first snowfall. This pumpkin is a true survivor, whether in wet swampland or Northern climates. I have never seen anything like it. It is now late October as I’m writing, and there are still immature green Seminoles ripening in the garden. And the storage quality of this pumpkin is incredible. Where other pumpkins and squash must be stored in a cool, dry area, Seminole Pumpkins last over a year just sitting on the kitchen counter. At the moment, I have one that sat out last winter in the house and the summer in the blazing heat and humidity out in the sun on our south-facing porch. It is back in the kitchen again, destined for the pot.
It is excellent just steamed, cut in four or five pieces, quick and easy. It’s also great baked like acorn squash, but can be so sweet that it needs no brown sugar or butter. American Indians sliced and sun dried it. The blossoms can be dipped in batter and fried. The fruit can be picked green and used as a summer squash or stored and used as a winter squash.