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We have hundreds of pumpkin varieties to choose from with new hybrids in development all the time. While many of them are big and orange and make the perfect jack-o’-lantern, specialty pumpkins steal the show. These are the beautiful boutique varieties that literally stand out in the field. Boutique pumpkins are easy to grow, eye-poppingly gorgeous and surprisingly useful in the kitchen.
The Pumpkin Family
Pumpkins are members of the Cucurbita family, along with squash, cucumbers and melons. The official line between pumpkins and squash is a fine one, and there’s a lot of crossover and regionality in the usage of these common terms. Most experts consider pumpkins part of the winter squash category, along with Hubbard squash, Acorn squash and Butternut squash, all of which have hard skins and store well.
Pumpkins and other squash types fit into four primary species:
This species consists of many crookneck varieties, including Butternut squash and Cushaw squash. Members of this species are generally more resistant to pests and diseases, including squash bugs and vine borers. Cooking pumpkins tend to be in this group, as well, and it includes the most common varieties for canning.
This species includes most jack-o’-lantern pumpkin varieties; the miniature varieties; and most soft-skinned summer squash, including Scallopini squash, Patty Pan squash, zucchini and others. Gourds are also in this category.
This species consists of the biggest members of the family including Hubbard squash, Turban squash, Buttercup squash, and other large-fruited squash and pumpkins.
Members of this species are not as sweet and flavorful as the other groups and are often cooked with sweeteners. Many types are used as a source of edible seeds. They have good resistance to vine borers and drought. The most common C. mixta variety is the Cushaw squash, which you’ll see with white skin (the Johnathan pumpkin), green striped, and orange or yellow striped.
Regardless of their official familial lines, boutique pumpkins have a one-up on jack-o’-lanterns, especially at farmers’ markets. They’re downright interesting, and for a customer who wants to stand out from the crowd, a display of these unique fruits will get them all the attention they can handle.
“These types of pumpkins draw crowds and give people something unique to take home,” says Danny Neel, marketing specialist with the USDA and an advisor to the Virginia Pumpkin Growers’ Association. “It’s hard to know the demographics of pumpkin buyers, but we know it’s a diverse group.”
And, for now, these diverse customers can’t buy specialty pumpkins at the big box store—they have to either grow them or rely on a small farmer who’s willing to step out of the box.
Boutique Pumpkin Varieties
Many specialty pumpkins were bred decades ago for their use in the kitchen, and they continue to be so, though North America hasn’t caught onto it quite yet. The history of many of the heirloom pumpkin varieties is long, and the breeding efforts to develop new boutique choices continue. Here are some exceptional varieties:
Jere Gettle, owner of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Missouri, a retailer of specialty pumpkin and squash seeds, says, “The New York Times listed [Black Futsu] as their favorite pumpkin a few years back.” And deservedly so. The flattened, round fruit has heavy ribbing and a bumpy rind. They have dark green-black skin with golden, nutty flavored flesh. Gettle adds that this is a good variety for gardeners with limited space because the vine is more compact than other varieties. He also finds that it has moderate resistance to insects and diseases.
A French heirloom with salmon-peach skin covered in tan peanut-looking warts, this variety is a complete show-stopper. The longer these fruits mature, the wartier they become. This corking results from expanded fractures in the skin that occur because of the fruit’s high sugar content and thin skin. The flesh is very creamy and smooth and is a favorite for pies and soups. Its name means “embroidered with warts from Eysines”—the small city in France from which it hails.
Marina Di Chioggia
Sometimes called the sea pumpkin, this variety is surely one of the prettiest pumpkins you’ll ever grow. The 4- to 10-pound, round and flat fruits are a deep blue-green, and the skin is covered with innumerable smooth bumps. The flesh is bright orange and delicious.
Hailing from Australia, this variety produces 6- to 10-pound, slate-blue fruits shaped much like a flattened drum. They’re round with deep ribs and beautiful, smooth skin. The flesh is dry and smooth with a nice fragrance. The rind is very dense. Gettle says you may need an axe to cut it in half—but that thick skin pays off: Jarrahdale stores for up to two years!
Musque de Provence
Often called “the fairytale pumpkin,” these flat pumpkins are shaped much like a wheel of cheese and can weigh up to 20 pounds each. Their heavy lobes and deep ribs start out dark green and mature to a deep mahogany color. The variety hails from southern France, boasts decent pest resistance and keeps for up to one year in proper storage.
One Too Many
A recent introduction from the Rupp Seed Company, this pumpkin is a pale cream color with orange-mottled netting all over. The fruits can be either round or elongated and weigh 15 to 20 pounds each on average. It is said to have good tolerance to mildew.
A tri-lobed heirloom pumpkin from Australia, Triamble ranges in color from a pale slate-blue to a deep green. It’s a novelty pumpkin with an excellent flavor. The skin is very hard, making it a long-lasting storage pumpkin, too.
These pure-white, flattened fruits are surprisingly elegant. The 12-inch-diameter fruit stands a mere 6 to 8 inches tall and has light ribbing.
Rouge Vif d’Etampes
Translated as “red life of the times,” this French heirloom is sometimes called the Cinderella pumpkin, as it looks much like the carriage-making pumpkin in the fairytale (shown on page 50). Large fruits ripen to a deep orange-red color. They are flattened, deeply lobed fruits that are reported to have been the variety served by the pilgrims at the second Thanksgiving. Gettle suggests harvesting them when they are 9 to 10 inches across, long before the skin hardens. “Pick them young, and fry them whole. They have an excellent flavor,” he says.
Red Warty Thing
The name pretty much says it all! Round, bowling ball-shaped pumpkins are bright red at maturity. They weigh 10 pounds or more and have hard, bumpy skin.
A beautiful, ribbed pumpkin. The skin is deep orange with green stripes between the ribs. Fruits weigh 4 to 6 pounds.
Grey-, green- and peach-colored skin that looks like it was watercolored onto the fruit. This is a newer variety that is the result of hybridization efforts at the University of Florida. Fruits weigh up to 10 pounds each and have deep-orange flesh.
A pure-white, classic-shaped pumpkin measuring 8 to 10 inches across. Flesh is great for cooking.
Long Island Cheese
The smooth tan skin and flat shape of this pumpkin make it look much like a wheel of cheese. Weighing as much as 20 pounds each, Long Island Cheese is an excellent roasting and baking pumpkin with deep-orange, sweet flesh.
A super-cute mini-pumpkin with stark-white skin, this variety is exclusively for decoration and is a real hit with children.
People may look at these distinctive pumpkin varieties and laugh. The laughter, though, translates into purchases. After all, their individuality is their appeal. It seems that these fruits have got the gutsy eccentricity most of us wish we had. They are special plants, indeed.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2010 issue of Hobby Farms.