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Americans have long loved jack-o’-lanterns and pumpkin pies, but these days there’s so much more to enjoy. Add pumpkin-spiced Spam, lattes, Cheerios and Oreos, pumpkin-scented candles and air fresheners, white pumpkin pie M&Ms, pumpkin-infused craft beer and Starbucks pumpkin spice coffee to the list. And if that isn’t enough, Nissin has joined the October madness with Pumpkin Spice Blend Cup Noodles.In the United States last year, 2 billion pounds of pumpkin was harvested from 66,200 acres. Roughly 46% of the American population (152 million people) will spend $687 million on pumpkins for carving, with a fifth of the crop going straight to food processors.The perfect pumpkins we painstakingly select at the local farm stand are cultivars of the squash plant Cucurbita pepo. “Pepon” is Greek for “large melon,” a word the French morphed to “pompon,” the British to “pumpion” and the American colonists to “pumpkin.”Archaeologists discovered 7,500-year-old domesticated pumpkin seeds in the Oaxaca highlands of Mexico. But long before the arrival of humans in the Americas, researchers speculate that wild pumpkins thrived, looking less like large melons and more like small, hard balls with a very bitter taste. Those days, the continent was home to giant mammalian herbivores, including mastodons, ground sloths and gomphotheres, who fed on the fruits. Along the way, they left wild Cucurbita seeds for archaeologists to discover in dung deposits that are now 30,000 years old.Along with those mammals, many Cucurbitas were on the road to extinction. However, some were saved, likely because the new human inhabitants had taken to eating the less bitter varieties, unwittingly initiating the long process of hybridization of the types we know today.It’s documented that pumpkins were served at the first harvest festival, celebrated by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe in 1621 at Plymouth. Long before the Pilgrims landed, pumpkins had become a staple in Native American diets. Their meaty, solid flesh made them storable for winter and times of scarcity.The Wampanoag helped the early settlers grow crops including pumpkins and squash, and taught them the skills they needed to survive the severe weather of coastal Massachusetts. Without their help, more of the early settlers would likely have died. As it was, only half of the colony survived the first winter of 1620-21. This verse from 1633 illustrates the role pumpkins played in the survival of the Plymouth colony: “For pottage and puddings and custards and piesOur pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies.We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon.”Native Americans throughout North America grew pumpkins, corn and beans together in “Three Sisters” gardens. Corn provided a trellis for the climbing beans, eliminating the need for poles. The bean roots set nitrogen in the soil, adding nourishment, and as the squash vines spread across the soil, the germination of weed seeds was stymied. The squash leaves acted as mulch, keeping the soil moist, while the vine’s stiff hairs made climbing insect pests unwelcome. In parts of the Northeast, rotten fish were buried with the corn seeds, contributing additional fertilizer in a model of sustainable agriculture where nothing was wasted.The Irish brought the tradition of carving jack-o’-lanterns to America, and adapted it. Pumpkins did not exist in Ireland; ancient Celts carved turnips on All Hallow’s Eve and placed embers inside to ward off evil spirits.So what happens to pumpkins on the day after Halloween in Yakima? Avoid sending them straight to the landfill as garbage. After being carved, it’s only a matter of days before pumpkins collapse in a moldy mess, a choice addition to your compost pile. Help things along by smashing the pumpkin into smaller pieces, but remove candles, wax and any decorations first. If you don’t have a compost pile but you have a garden, dig a hole and bury the chopped pumpkin. Nature will take over, transforming jack into an organic soil amendment.When it comes time to plant in the spring, you won’t find any pumpkin remains, unless you forgot to remove all the seeds. In that case, you may find the spot marked by dozens of volunteer plants.No garden? Scatter the chopped pumpkin, blanketed with leaves, on the shady side of some shrubs or trees, and let “compost happen.”What if you left your pumpkin uncarved? Bred for size, shape, color and a sturdy stem for carrying, jack-o’-lantern pumpkins have stringier, more watery flesh than smaller and more savory pie pumpkins, but are still edible. Intact pumpkins will keep for months in cool storage, enough time for you to go through dozens and dozens of pages of suggestions that come up in an internet search of “pumpkin recipes.”
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