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Dual-purpose pumpkins need more work | New World Seeds & Tubers

Pie filling and seeds from the same plant.

As far as I’m aware, a “pumpkin” is a squash with the classic flattened-globe shape and maybe some ribs. But if you’re buying seeds, be aware if you’re not already that you don’t look under “pumpkin” you look under “squash”; the “pumpkins” are usually just for making jack-o-lanterns.

Jack-o-lantern pumpkins are usually big and hollow, and have poor quality, flavorless, stringy flesh. This isn’t always true, but it’s often true.

Another group of pumpkins that lack tasty flesh are the oilseed pumpkins–the Ölkürbis originally from Styria, Austria.

I’m not sure why oilseed pumpkins are hull-less. You can extract oil from sunflower seeds without having to remove the shells. I’m also curious if pumpkin seeds are hard to crack open mechanically. They probably end up with too many crushed seeds, but I don’t know the answer.

Pumpkinseed oil is a luxury salad oil often compared to olive oil, but it is more expensive, and furthermore its oil composition is sufficiently different that it can’t be used the same way. You can fry with olive oil, but delicate pumpkinseed oil can’t tolerate that much heat; it’s too highly polyunsaturated.

So it’s always eaten raw. Interestingly, it also shows up as a topping for deserts such as ice cream, and on yoghurt. Some day I’d like to try that, when I have enough pumpkinseed to spare some plus an oil press.

In many countries, the seeds are available intact to be eaten whole. In Germany they’re apt to show up in or on bread, and in many other countries they’re lightly toasted and eaten as a snack or a garnish for soups or salads.

How about having it both ways: naked seeds AND palatable flesh?

I don’t think one particularly precludes the other: pumpkins make seeds whether they have tasty flesh or not. Those seeds could be just as well naked as not.

There might be a cost in terms of extremes of productivity. Probably a pumpkin can only make so many oily and protein-rich seeds before it doesn’t have enough energy left for making sugar and starch. Nevertheless there’s plenty of room to compromise; a lot of squashes with delicious flesh also have plenty of seeds.

The actual obstacle is genetically combining both traits. If the naked-seed trait involved a single allele of a single gene, then you could cross the oilseed pumpkin to something tastier, and even if that gene were recessive you could get it back in 2 generations.

Unfortunately, the naked-seed trait involves several genes. Nobody seems to know how many, but guesses have put the number as high as 6. At least some of them are recessive. It takes a lot of crosses and a lot of searching through a lot of progeny to find the right combinations again.

That said, it’s been partially done. There have been a number of squashes bred with flesh that is at least somewhat palatable, as well as having seeds with thin papery hulls.

Oddly they don’t seem to last long in the market. I’ve been able to find exactly 2 of them, and one was a gift from someone who had them left over from a breeding project (thank you, Bret). A lot of them seem to have come and then gone extinct.

My guess is that there isn’t much demand for them. One problem might be lack of demand from commercial growers; most backyard crops are the same ones grown commercially, though often lagging a few generations (a tomato starts out as a commercial tomato, then about 40 years after it is no longer grown commercially it’s declared an “heirloom” among backyard growers, not a joke…). A commercial grower would rather have one trait or the other, not both.

So this is strictly a backyard crop. But that’s one of our specialties, so I’m willing to take the chance.

A smaller market may have doomed the concept to not enough breeding work to finish the job. A few weeks ago I harvested the ones I grew, and the verdict is in: the flesh is more watery than I would like, not as sweet and fine-grained as I would prefer, and the seeds are not fully hull-less.

The whole thing is a mediocre compromise.

I made a pie out of it. The batter was not too bad after being sweetened (took more sugar than I usually used), spiced, and blended with evaporated milk and eggs. I had to run it through a blender to get it smooth.

Because it took a long time to evaporate down enough to set, it ended up with a big fissure down the middle.

We just had the pie tonight; it was better than I expected considering the mediocre quality of the flesh. One slice of it is pictured above, and those are some of the seeds from the same pumpkin.

I notice that some seeds have less hull than others. So I bet if I grew enough of them I could probably select for more thoroughly hull-less seeds, and also for bigger seeds. Bigger seeds would be better more for growing than for eating; the bigger reserves give them more of a head-start.

I don’t know how to improve the flesh. I’m not a crop breeder–and this is my project not Tom’s; his plate is already full.

I’ll have to check Dr. Carol Deppe’s two books on amateur plant-breeding. Squashes are one of the crops she covers in detail in these two books. She likes squashes for all the same reasons that I do: it’s a good nourishing, tasty food that comes self-storing right off the vine. Hull-less types are Cucurbita pepo, whose fruit does not keep as long as those of maximas and moschatas (for which reason some folks want to call them “autumn squashes” instead of “winter squashes”), but I’ve eaten them as late as February.

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6 Responses to “Dual-purpose pumpkins need more work”

  1. Some years ago I grew sweetnut Hulless, bred by Elwyn Meader. That had small pale green, fully hulless seeds and flesh which was quite good. Perhaps that might be a good variety to use to start a breeding program. I think it was a bush variety too.

    • That’s one of the varieties I grew. It failed catastrophically in two different locations–though I rescued some seeds and will try to get them to germinate. I also have a few left over.

      You’re right, it’s a bush variety, and that was one of the problems I had with it: too few blossoms, hidden under the leaves. Did not pollinate well. I tried manually pollinating it but I just did not find much pollen on the male flowers. Blossom after blossom after blossom failed to take, until finally the plant was exhausted. The fruit that finally took was too late in the plant’s life cycle to develop fully,

      The other problem was, as is not uncommon among highly determinate plants, it was a weak grower that went senescent too soon to fully ripen the fruit. Interestingly though I have not always had this problem with determinate types; some have given me good healthy foliage all the way to the end.

      One variable that was suboptimal was that I tried growing it during an unusually cold, wet year that was hard on a lot of things. If we had a warmer, drier “El Niño” summer, it undoubtedly would have performed better.

      I had guessed that it might have had better fruit, judging from the background and the reputation of the breeder. He must have gone through huge numbers of seedlings to find the ones with all the right alleles lined up right. It’s not easy to breed these things. For which reason it would be a good idea to grow out some of those Sweetnut seeds if you still have them, to keep a fresh supply. I don’t think they have particularly long longevity, especially lacking hulls to protect the seed.

      You’re right, it would be a good start.

  2. Is one of the two you tried Triple Treat? I’ve grown that, and didn’t find it too bad on either seeds or flesh. But I’ll bet you’re right that there is still a fair amount of diversity present that could be selected from.

    • You’re right, and good guess.

      The fact that it performed at all is a credit to it; the other one I grew failed catastrophically, under challenging conditions: an unusually cold summer. Had the summer been warmer and longer, it would presumably have at least been sweeter.

  3. Another good book to offer on this site would be “Seed to Seed” by Suzanne Ashworth.

    • A lot of my friends have that book. I don’t think I do, but it sounds familiar and I’m wondering if I once checked it out from the library. I’ll post a link to it one of these days; early next month I’ll post a whole library of useful books. Thanks for the recommendation, Bud!

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