Saturday, 29 October 2011

Halloween: Behold the Great Pumpkin

For the last week the zoo has had its Halloween week, with among other special events some displays of pumpkins and squashes grown by the gardeners. Traditionally, the only members of the pumpkin family grown on any scale in the UK were marrows and their smaller relatives the courgette (zucchini), but with more varieties for sale in supermarkets more people are growing other varieties, such as butternut squash and, of course, pumpkins.

The Cucurbitaceae, the family to which pumpkins, gourds, and melons belong, has a worldwide distribution and various varieties were among the first food crops to be domesticated. As well as food, the hard rind of several forms are used to make containers, and one form, the Luffa gourd, is used to make vegetable sponges for cleaning. On the whole, they are warmth-loving plants, and only in recent years has the British climate been warm enough to grow the modern varieties outside.

The true Pumpkin, Cucurbita maxima, is the largest of the various forms that can be grown in the UK. Carving pumpkins for Halloween lanterns is fairly new in Britain (in the past turnips were used instead), but it is fairly common these days.

Of more interest is the pumpkins contribution to one of the more popular branches of gardening in Britain, the fine art of competitive vegetable growing. When the first giant vegetable show was held is lost in the mists of rural alcohol, but it seems to have been an outgrowth of the agricultural improvement movement, which became a major player in the increase of agricultural production from the mid-1750s onwards. At first only major landowners took part, but pretty soon everyone with an allotment or garden was joining in. As knowledge of how to selectively breed both plants and animals became widespread a passion for what was effectively amateur genetic engineering became part of the British worldview, and soon spread from agricultural crops and livestock to pets. Societies sprang up devoted to this species or other of animal or plant, and held shows where members could display their skill with breeding and husbandry. The most famous of these shows is probably Crufts, the most famous dog show in the world, but ornamental plants and garden shows are part of the same movement really. With vegetables the competition can be especially fierce, and by now some of the sizes of the vegetables shown are practically unbelievable. It is not unknown to see carrots approaching 2m long, or pumpkins weighing over 600kg.

Giant pumpkins are invariably specially selected strains of the variety ‘Atlantic Giant’, which was first produced in the US. To produce the largest fruits, growers restrict the number developing on every plant and watch the plants like hawks to ensure they do not suffer shortage of plant food (especially nitrogen) and suffer any checks to their growth from chilling. For more on this arcane art form, look here:

Considering the amount of passion (and occasional skulduggery) that goes on behind these competitions they do not appear in art as often as you might expect. The best portrait I know of in recent years is Nick Park’s wonderful animated film The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (if you have not seen it, get a copy at once – I guarantee you will like it.

Today the cage bird society I belong to is having a show. Next week, I will tell you how I got on, and start a series on the natural and unnatural history of common pet birds. The story has more twists and turns than you might think.

No comments:

Post a Comment