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Dakota Gardener: The Rich History of Jack-o’-lanterns and Pumpkins

Jack-o’-lanterns got their start in Irish folklore.

By Esther McGinnis, Horticulturist

NDSU Extension

Each year, families make the pilgrimage to the pumpkin patch to purchase the perfect specimen for carving jack-o’-lanterns.

How did this Halloween tradition originate? A long and interesting history on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean underlies this tradition.

According to Irish folklore, “Stingy Jack” was a drunk and a scoundrel. Intrigued with his devious disposition, the devil sought to claim his soul. During two separate encounters, Jack managed to escape the devil’s clutches through trickery.

In the first encounter, he convinced the devil to transform into a silver coin. He then placed the coin next to a silver cross, thereby confining the devil. In another encounter, he conned the devil into climbing a tree and then trapped him by drawing crosses in the tree bark.

After he died, both heaven and hell refused to admit Stingy Jack. Doomed to wander the dark netherworld, the devil threw Jack a burning ember to light the way. Jack then placed the ember in a carved turnip. The lighted turnip became known as a jack-o’-lantern and was used by the Irish and Scottish to frighten wandering spirits during All Hallows’ Eve.

When the Irish and Scottish immigrated to the U.S., they brought their jack-o’-lantern tradition. However, the tradition took on an American flavor and transitioned into the carving of large pumpkins that were in abundant supply.

Pumpkins have an amazing history that even predates the Irish legend of Stingy Jack. They are believed to have originated in Central America but eventually were introduced into Mexico and the southern U.S.

Scientists found the remnants of ancient pumpkins in a cave in Oaxaca, Mexico. Archaeological evidence shows that pumpkins were cultivated approximately 7,500 to 9,000 years ago or even earlier. Therefore, this is one of the first cultivated food crops in the Western Hemisphere.

American Indians grew and consumed pumpkins as an integral part of their diet, with each tribe having unique ways of preparing and drying the flesh.

If you are interested in buying a pumpkin for your front porch, here are some tips for selecting a good one that will last and not decay quickly:

  • Choose a pumpkin that has a hard rind; your fingernail will dent it but not puncture the rind.
  • Look for a hardened stem that is at least 4 inches long; the length of the stem helps with the curing or hardening process.
  • Do not carry the pumpkin by the stem.

Unfortunately, large pumpkins that are sold for carving have stringy flesh that is not suitable for pie. Interestingly, most canned pumpkin in the grocery store is actually Dickinson squash.

Before you worry about a mislabeling controversy, you need to know that pumpkins and squash are genetically very similar. If you are interested in growing heirloom Dickinson squash, seeds are available from online specialty seed retailers.

For more information about gardening, contact your local NDSU Extension agent. Find the Extension office for your county at https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/extension/directory/counties.

NDSU Agriculture Communication - Oct. 13, 2020

Source: Esther McGinnis, 701-231-7971, esther.mcginnis@ndsu.edu

Editor: Ellen Crawford, 701-231-5391, ellen.crawford@ndsu.edu








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