Thinking of pumpkin as a nutritious super food can be a bit puzzling.

After all, isn't the image that comes to mind sweet and smooth and covered in whipped cream? But, according to nutritionists, we should be thinking of pumpkin more often than during the annual Charlie Brown cartoon or as a delicious way to top off a scrumptious Thanksgiving dinner.

Pumpkin is a vegetable, regardless of those images. In fact, pumpkin is a nutrient-rich super food that has a great number of health benefits. Let's take a look at why pumpkin should get its just desserts... beyond desserts.

The pumpkin

Pumpkin has definitely earned its place among the top super foods for a healthy diet. Colorful, nutritious, delicious, and oh so versatile - all the things a super food should be!

Types of pumpkins

The standard orange variety

Grow between 2 to 5 pounds: Baby Bear, small, flattened shape; fine stem, with thick, pie-worthy flesh and roastable seeds. Baby Pam, Oz, hybrid, very smooth skin, immature yellow color. The dry sweet flesh of this "sugar pie" pumpkin makes for delicious pumpkin pie. Small Sugar or New England Pie, the standard pie type. Spooktacular, hybrid; bright orange; ribbed. Sugar Treat, hybrid; bright color. Winter Luxury, old variety, good for cooking; unique netted skin.

Grow between 8 to 15 pounds: Autumn Gold, hybrid, yellow when immature, seeds can be roasted for a crunchy, nutritious snack. Bushkin - hybrid. Frosty, hybrid; smooth-textured skin. Funny Face, hybrid. Harvest Moon, hybrid. Jack-o-Lantern Spirit, hybrid, semi-bush. Young's Beauty.

Grow between 15 to 25 pounds: Aspen, hybrid, deep orange, uniformly large. Big Autumn, hybrid, yellow when mature. Big Tom Connecticut Field, the old standard. Ghost Rider, dark orange; very dark green stem. Happy Jack uniform, dark orange. Howden Field, the industry standard for the last 20 years. Jackpot, hybrid; round. Jumpin' Jack, large, dark orange, heavy, tall. Pankow's Field, large, variable pumpkins with exceptionally large, long stems. Rouge Vif d'Estampes, deep red-orange, flattened, heavily sutured. It was the prototype for Cinderella's carriage pumpkin and is sometimes sold as "Cinderella" pumpkin.

Types for canning and cooking

Without forgetting the others. Buckskin, hybrid. Chelsey, hybrid. Dickinson Field and Kentucky Field.

Jumbo pumpkins

Grow between 50, 100 pounds to much larger. Atlantic Giant, most true giants come from this variety. Big Max, Big Moon, Mammoth Gold Prizewinner.


White painting - Casper, Lumina, Snowball, Little Boo.

Cushaw group - Green-Striped Cushaw, it has a unique texture, some cooks prefer it for custards.

Sweet potato - Tennessee, White Cushaw, Golden Cushaw.

Naked-seeded - Trick or Treat, hybrid, 10 to 12 pounds, good for carving. Tricky Jack, hybrid; small. Triple Treat, thick flesh; 6 to 8 pounds; cooks, carves well.

Miniature pumpkin - Baby Boo, white. Jack-Be-Little, standard orange miniature. Jack-Be-Quick, larger, darker orange. Munchkin, uniform, attractive orange. Sweetie Pie, small, scalloped, medium orange.

Pumpkin growing tips

Pumpkins are great for a number of purposes. They can be used to make a great pie, and of course there's the traditional Halloween decoration. Fortunately, growing good ones takes only a modest amount of knowledge and care.

As with any vegetable or fruit, preparing the soil properly is paramount. Use a soil testing kit to make sure the pH is about 6.0, a little more alkaline than many vegetables see as ideal. pH can be adjusted up or down with sulfur or lime. A soil temperature of about 60F/15.5C is best.

Good drainage is important for growing good pumpkins. Too much clay in the earth will retain excess moisture. Soil that is too sandy will lose water. A good sandy loam is best. You can adjust the consistency by adding compost, breaking up clay, adding topsoil and other common methods.

Planting in small mounds is a favorite technique. Be sure to leave plenty of space from one plant to the next, though. Pumpkins grow large and they like to have lots of sunshine, water and earth all to their own. From 4-6 feet (1-2 m) apart is best. If you like to plant in rows, keep those 6-8 feet (2-2.5 m) apart. The surrounding ground should not be planted with other vegetables.

Daily watering would be overdoing it for these plants. But when you do water, make it ample. Pumpkins like a good soaking that puts water down deep into the soil. Provided you have soil that drains properly, a drip irrigation system will put plenty down where it needs to go.

That style of watering will also help avoid some of the common diseases that attack pumpkins, such as downy mildew. It's caused by the Pseudoperonospora cubensis fungus and growth is encouraged when the temperatures are lower and the leaves are moist. It will appear as yellow spots on the foliage. As the disease progresses it turns brown, then black. Along with proper watering practices, ample space encourages good air flow, which helps to reduce the odds of disease.

Powdery mildew is a similar problem, caused by a different type of fungus. It appears as a white mold on the leaves. Unlike downy mildew, however, this type tends to occur in warmer weather. But it is encouraged by the same bad watering methods. That's actually good, since one good technique can combat multiple problems. Compost tea is useful for these problems, too.

Unfortunately, fungi aren't the only enemies of pumpkins. Cucumber beetles are a common pest for this plant. Squash bugs also like pumpkins a little too much. Thick mulch helps minimize their ability to lay eggs.

Many growers will plant 'trap crops' to lure the insects to sacrificial plants in order to retain the more valued pumpkins. Companion plants such as catnip, marigolds and mint will help keep the squash bugs at bay, for example.

With a little care pumpkins will be ready for harvest in 3-4 months. Then you can carve one up and have pumpkin pie just in time for Halloween.

Preparation and cooking

Of course, pumpkin is associated first with pie. Beyond pie, many folks know about making pumpkin muffins or cake. These are great and delicious, but trying to branch out into more pumpkin dishes takes a little more imagination.

But, first to clarify; no, pumpkin does not taste like pumpkin pie. That flavor comes from the spices used in the pie, like nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon. Because pumpkin basically has very little flavor of its own, it will taste like whatever you want it to taste like.

Pumpkin is truly versatile enough to go into soup, chowder, stews, casseroles, and other main dishes. You can puree pumpkin and add to soups as a thickener and to add great fiber and nutrition. Try roasting pumpkin and mashing like you would any squash. Flavor with herbs, salt, and pepper for added taste. You can steam it, boil it, or puree it to use in a variety of other recipes, like pumpkin pancakes for breakfast. The seeds, of course, can be roasted in a number of ways, then added to cereal, trail mix, or salads.

For a real different twist, and a very pretty presentation, scoop out the flesh from several small pumpkins, chop up and add to your choice of meat, vegetables, rice or bread cubes, and seasonings. Then stuff the pumpkin shells with the mixture and bake to make an entrée that your guests won't soon forget.

Nutritional value

The list of nutrients in pumpkin is almost endless. Starting with the basic vitamins and minerals we all know, pumpkin has a healthy amount of vitamins C and E, and is a rich source of potassium and magnesium. Pumpkin is also right up there with other super foods in the dietary fiber category.

Pumpkin also contains two lesser known elements called carotenoids, which are alpha-carotene and beta-carotene. These carotenoids are fat-soluble compounds that are specifically linked to decreasing the risk of a number of cancers, as well as lowering the risk for heart disease, cataracts, and macular degeneration.

Beta carotene is an important antioxidant. Foods rich in beta carotene, like pumpkin, sweet potatoes, and carrots, have the potential to lower cholesterol and to slow the aging process of our vital organs. Antioxidant rich foods, like pumpkin, are key to fighting the free radicals which attack our healthy cells.

And, it's not just the flesh, the insides, of the pumpkin that is healthy. The seeds from the pumpkin also earn their super food status. These seeds, or pepitas, are also nutrient-rich and beneficial, containing high concentrations of phosphorous, zinc, copper, selenium, and other nutrients. The seeds also have essential Omega 3 fatty acids and even the amino acid typtophan, known for its anti-depressant benefits. So, as you see, the pumpkin has a lot more to offer than you might think.

Pumpkin - pepo, jack-o-lantern, gourd, squash.

cucurbita pepo (Cucurbitaceae)

The great pumpkin