U Of I Extension Horticulture Educator Ryan Pankau
Pumpkins are America’s fruit of choice for carving jack-o-lanterns. That’s right… they are a fruit not a vegetable. Jack-o-lanterns originated in Ireland where the Irish did carve vegetables, such as large turnips or potatoes. The English and Scottish used large beets and turnips for their jack-o-lanterns. As immigrants from these European countries started to settle in American, they brought their traditions with them. Over time, they adapted a native fruit to the Americas, the pumpkin, to their jack-o-lantern carving rituals.
We are lucky enough to live in the top pumpkin producing state in the US.
Each year, Illinois soils produce about 500 million pounds of pumpkins. Other top producers include Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and California. Interestingly, about 90-95% of processed pumpkins in the US are produced here in Illinois. A much smaller percentage of the pumpkin crop is grown for ornamental uses, such as jack-o-lantern carving.
When selecting your pumpkin for jack-o-lantern carving or fall décor, there are some important considerations. Begin by inspecting your pumpkin’s stem. Is it green or a more brown color? Does it have a stem? Freshly harvested pumpkins, which will last longer, have a green colored stem. Pumpkins without a stem will not last as long since the removal of the stem left, essentially, an open wound. Never carry your pumpkin by the stem because you risk breaking the stem, which leaves a wound, and dropping the pumpkin, which will leave a bruise or cut. Next, inspect the surface of pumpkin for bruises, cuts or soft spots. All of these defects will accelerate the rotting process and reduce the time you get to enjoy your pumpkin. Remember, lighter colored pumpkins are easier to carve, but don’t last as long since they have a less dense skin.
Select a darker colored pumpkin for maximum freshness for the longest time period. Finally, set the pumpkin down upright, as it will sit for ornamental uses. Does it sit upright or lean to one side or another? In order to have the best jack-o-lantern display, consider the surface that best displays your design. Based on how the pumpkin naturally sits, will your carving show nicely or will it be downward facing or leaning to one side? Perhaps the lean of the pumpkin may work with your design for maximum spookiness? Select a pumpkin that will sit in the most favorable position for your carving.
Once you select the ideal pumpkin and bring it home, store it in a cool place until caring time, such as a concrete garage floor or basement floor. Prior to carving, wash the pumpkin with warm water and let it dry. This will remove any dirt other materials that may later contribute to the deterioration of your pumpkin. After carving your spooky (or goofy) jack-lantern face into the pumpkin you can coat the cut areas with a thin layer of petroleum jelly to help preserve the cuts and slow deterioration.
For more information on the history of pumpkins, pumpkin growing recommendations and pumpkin facts, recipes and activities, please visit the University of Illinois Extension’s “Pumpkins and More” website: http://m.extension.illinois.edu/pumpkins/