Wednesday, September 20, 2017  

Pumpkins & Gourds
Mother Nature is about to color our landscape with beautiful jewel-tone colors as fall approaches. Splashes of gold, green, orange, red, brown and purple will be covering our world. As the weather cools it brings the onset of a breathtaking display. The trees, fields, crops, grasses, flowers and gardens are all soon to be a burst of lusciousness that surrounds us. One of the best uses of color during the fall is to bring Mother Nature’s beautiful bounty into your home for display. Colorful gourds, squash and pumpkins abound in our region and are not only found as decorations inside and out but are also used in creating some delicious dishes.

Families will be gathering for fall festivities, dinners and celebrations and many will bring the outdoors inside to add to the hospitality and coziness. Decorating with pumpkins, flowers, grasses, cattails, leaves, gourds and even bales of straw during the fall season is not only fun but it can be inexpensive as well.

Gourds and pumpkins growing in your garden or a neighbor’s garden are ideal decorations during the fall. It is easy to make an artsy display and group them on your front porch, around an outdoor light or flagpole or even at the end of your driveway around your mailbox. You can arrange a smaller grouping inside doorways and foyers, in front of the fireplace or any area you want to add warmth to your home. Even creating a stunning wreath with small assorted gourds is easier than you think. Hot glue the various gourds to a straw wreath and when done, finish off by gluing colorful silk fall leaves to fill in the holes. This wreath can be hung indoors or outdoors under a roof or behind a storm door.

During the entertaining season there are several easy ways to decorate your table or home. If you are having a dinner party, why not use small gourds as name place cards or elegant table decorations. Simply write your guest’s name on the gourd with a marker. Or group varying sizes of cylindrical vases on your table, buffet or fireplace mantle and stack multicolored gourds on top of each other for a splash of color. Better yet, gather several large or pedestal glasses, bowls or small vases and fill half way with water and float a small gourd in each. For an old-fashioned feel, assemble various candlesticks of different heights and simply set a small gourd or pumpkin  on top. If you are feeling crafty, cut the top off of multiple gourds or small pumpkins and hollow out a deep hole. Place a small pillar candle inside the hole for ready-made candleholders  or place a votive candle inside for  a ready made votive holder perfectfor outdoors. For a table or buffet centerpiece, you can hollow out a pumpkin and insert a flower vase inside (a coffee can will work as well). Fill with fresh flowers, cattails and autumn colored leaves from outdoors to display a colorful fall arrangement. Assorted squash that can sit upright can be used as flower vases as well, just remove the long “handle” end and hollow out the round section. Bare in mind, a plain coat of gold, bronze or silver spray paint can add instant bling to your surroundings easily.

During Halloween, children will be donning their favorite costumes and roaming neighborhoods on the hunt for sweets and treats. Halloween is an exciting time of year and has made pumpkins and gourds a necessity when decorating. Pumpkin carving has reached a new level over the past decade or so. Today you are liable to see anything carved into pumpkins from the standard cat or scary face, to Elvis, to the White House and everything possible in-between. And what can you do with the seeds after hollowing out the pumpkin? Why toast them and eat them of course! The secret to a wonderfully crunchy seed with the shell still intact is boiling them in water before toasting in the oven. Once the seeds are rinsed under water, place 1/2 cup of seeds, 2 cups of water and 1 tablespoon of salt into a small saucepan. Bring to a boil then let simmer for ten minutes and drain. Next, coat a roasting pan with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and spread the seeds in a single layer. Place on the top rack of a preheated oven at 400 degrees and bake 10-20 minutes until beginning to brown. Let cool and either crack the hull to get to the seed or eat whole.

All gourds and pumpkins are members of the Cucurbitaceae or Cucumber family, along with squash, melons (including watermelons) and cucumbers. They offer a beautiful burst of color, either alone or when added to flowers, grasses and leaves. They also have an interesting history, as well as a wealth of uses.

The origin of American gourds has been traced by radiocarbon dating which indicates that gourds were used as containers, not food, in the New World at least 9,000 years ago. It is believed that gourds are native of Africa and the gourds were transported from there to Asia. From Asia they found their way to the Americas. Research shows that the ancient bottle gourds were most likely bought to the Americas from Asia either by boats, hand-carried across a previous land bridge or they floated across the Bering Strait.

Gourds are classified into three categories: Cucurbita, Lagenaria and Luffa, each grown for a different function. Cucurbitas are the colorful ones with a thick skin that are used for decorating, not consumption. They may be striped, bumpy, solid or rigid. Lagenaria have harder skin, are larger and are used for more utilitarian purposes as well as birdhouses. If this type is dried and prepared properly it can last for many years. There are also a few varieties of this gourd that can be consumed. And finally, Luffa gourds are dried, skinned and prepared to use as luffa sponges that are used in the shower. Some of these varieties can be cooked or eaten fresh when they are between two and seven inches.

Types of gourds recommended for growing in our area include: Smooth and Warted Pear, egg types, Shenot Crown of Thorns, egg and winged types, Turks Turban, Caveman’s Club, Calabash, Dolphin, Swan Gourd, Corsican Flat, as well as several types of bottle, small and large dipper varieties

Research leads us to believe that pumpkins (which are a type of squash) originated in North America where seeds from similar plants have been found in Mexico dating back to 7000 B.C. or earlier. It is believed that Native American Indians were using pumpkins (long before the pilgrims landed in their fair land) as a main staple in their diets for many centuries. Following the arrival of the settlers, pumpkins became a staple in their diet as well. Each used pumpkins for various purposes. Indians found uses for pumpkins from a utilitarian need to decorations as well as food. The early settlers discovered a variety of uses for the pumpkins as well. They created a variety of fare from soups and breads to desserts.

Pumpkin varieties recommended for our zone include: Munchkin, Baby Pam, Ironsides, Baby Bear, Pik A Pie, Small Sugar, Casper, Mystic Plus, Wizard, Merlin, Gold Strike, Sorcerer, Gold Rush, Howden Biggie and Prize Winner, just to name a few. These grow in various sizes so be sure to read the packaging to assure you are buying the size you wish to grow, decorate or carve.

Pumpkins can be made into just about any dish. There are pies, soups, pancakes, breads, etc. Their seeds can be easily baked to golden deliciousness. The first settlers are believed to have created the very first version of a pumpkin “pie” by filling a hollowed out pumpkin shell with milk, honey and spices, then baking it (whole) in hot ashes. Pumpkin pies today are a staple to just about every family’s Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations. The various recipes are endless and some are even passed down through the generations. Pumpkin soup is a deliciously warming cream-like appetizer that can be made with canned or fresh pumpkin and spiced to preference. It is a great start to a memorable family get together.
If you are looking to add flair to your pancake breakfast on a cold winter morning, pumpkin pancakes are perfect for the fall and winter season. Light and fluffy, this is a tasty twist to a family favorite and can even be served for dinner. Consider baking pumpkin bread for the perfect hostess gift, covered dish provision or to enjoy with your own meals.

When it comes to plants of many uses, you would be hard pressed to find any plant that has had such an impact on human culture as a gourd or one more recognized (especially by children) than a pumpkin. Pumpkins and gourds are a great way to decorate during the fall season. In the past they had many uses which were not decorative at all. Native Americans discovered a variety of uses from dermatological treatments to getting rid of headaches. They used them as cooking tools such as cups, large containers, bowls, spoons and dippers as well as games and toys, think—the first baby rattle. Ceremonial items and musical instruments were made as well.

Whether turning your pumpkin or gourd into a craft object: a birdhouse, a container, utensil, or else painting faces on it or carving it, decorating with them is easy and fun. Just choose a spot and set them down and poof, you have instant color, beauty and warmth. Furthermore, you would be hard pressed to find a sweeter more comforting,  down home smell than something  baked with pumpkins.