A few years ago, I came across a dilemma that I wasn’t sure how to resolve. The Section of Botany was given permission to preserve, for the scientific collection, part of the giant pumpkin that was in the exhibition, We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene. This was an intriguing offer. I just wasn’t sure how to go about it. Preserving any large fruits or plant parts can be a real challenge. Plant materials must be dried before they rot, and the process must happen at a temperature low enough to prevent the material from being cooked. The normal procedure of putting a plant or plant part into a plant press and drying it with warm dry air was not really an option; at least not for a 2,090-pound pumpkin that wouldn’t even fit in my car, let alone my plant press.
Pumpkins are a type of squash, but trying to literally squash one to dry it seemed a bit daunting. The farmers who grew this giant pumpkin were more than willing to give us whatever parts of the pumpkin we wanted to preserve, and they were even willing to help with cutting them from the pumpkin. We decided on trying to keep the unique parts of the pumpkin, like the stem and the blossom end (bottom). We also saved some of the inner tissue and a few seeds. The seeds on a pumpkin this large are a prize commodity. If a pumpkin from which seeds are properly harvested was a champion, as this one was, each seed could sell for $30 to upwards of $50. It was very generous of the farmers to allow us to have some of these seeds for our collection.
Pumpkin farmers keep close tabs on the genetics of these giants and actively work at growing larger pumpkins. You can actually find family tree information for this very pumpkin online if you search for it. Who knows how large mankind will eventually enable pumpkins to grow? The plants that grow these large squashes (the Cucurbita maxima variety known as ‘Atlantic Giant’) are a variety of the same species that produce Hubbard Squash. This species, which was originally from South America, has become one of the more diverse domesticated plants.
Giant pumpkins have been a focal point of imagination and literature for some time. Think of Cinderella. There are several variants on the Cinderella tale going back hundreds of years that involve large squash. Back when these stories were written though, it was a fantasy to think there actually could be a pumpkin that a person could fit inside.
Now that we are using QR codes on our herbarium labels, it’s easy to add photographs to plant specimen records. I wish we had thought to do this before the massive pumpkin was cut up. Maybe I will go back and add a QR code to the label, so the actual pumpkin can be seen again in its full glory. What we have in the collection now are bits and pieces, mere remnants of the gentle giant that grew 45-50 pounds per day in 2017.
Getting back to my original question, how do you preserve a giant pumpkin? I guess the answer is a little bit at a time!
More on this giant pumpkin:
Collected on This Day: November 25, 2017
Bonnie Isaac is the Collection Manager in the Section of Botany. Museum staff, volunteers, and interns are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.