Is Pumpkin a Fruit or Vegetable? Here’s Why

Written by Michael Steinkirchner
Updated: July 19, 2023
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Pumpkins are a fruit that grows from the seeds of a pumpkin plant. However, many people wonder if they are vegetables or fruits. What is the difference between a fruit and a vegetable anyways? This is a common question to find yourself asking, and surprisingly enough, the answer can vary depending on whether you are a botanist or a cook. This can lead to lots of confusion, so read on to better understand pumpkins and how to classify them!

Pumpkins have a long and storied connection with American culture and history. Native Americans have grown and harvested pumpkins for thousands of years, predating even their cultivation of corn and beans. Pumpkin seeds and pumpkin soup are popular nutritional snacks, and these festive gourds feature prominently as household decorations during the fall season. From eating pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread on Thanksgiving to carving out scary faces on Halloween, it feels like this particular food has always been there.

How Can I Tell the Difference Between a Fruit and a Vegetable? 

From a botanical perspective, we define anything growing from a plant’s flower as a fruit, while we consider everything else that grows from other parts of the plant a vegetable. Fruits usually contain seeds, and vegetables often incorporate roots, leaves, or stems.

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In culinary terms, the taste of the produce determines whether we call it a fruit or a vegetable — sweet taste signifies fruits, while savory implies vegetables. This distinction can lead to confusion with foods like avocados, olives, or zucchinis, which, though they grow from flowers (thus botanically fruits), are often considered vegetables due to their savory flavor. Most cultures tend to snack on fruits or use them in desserts, whereas they often consume vegetables as main meals.

This conundrum means that some foods technically fall under one category, but are more widely recognized under the other because of their flavor profile.

The tomato is the most notable example of this discrepancy. The United States Supreme Court, in accordance with US customs regulations, classified this actual fruit as a vegetable in 1893.

Ultimately there are plenty of health benefits to both fruits and vegetables. They each contain a multitude of minerals and vitamins and are a good supply of fiber. There are very small amounts of fat and sodium, and the natural sugar found in fruits is a far healthier option when compared to processed sugar.

Are Pumpkins Fruits or Vegetables?

Pumpkins are, in fact, a fruit because they come from the seeds of a flowering plant, whereas other parts, such as the root, stem, leaves, and bulbs, would be classified as vegetables.

Pumpkins are winter plants that belong to the Cucurbitaceae or squash family, alongside cantaloupe, honeydew melons, zucchini, cucumbers, and watermelons. The Cucurbita pepo genus is native to North America and the kind most commonly found in household kitchens and front porches across the country.

The word pumpkin comes from the word “Pepõn,” which is Greek for “large melon.” While pumpkins originated in Mexico and Central America, you can grow and harvest them on every continent except for Antarctica. 

If you are resourceful enough, pumpkins can provide various sources of sustenance from their outer skin (delicious when roasted!), their flower (a nutritious addition to anything from salads to quesadillas), to their seeds (full of magnesium, zinc, antioxidants, and iron).

giant pumpkin growing in yard

The word pumpkin comes from the word “Pepõn,” which is Greek for “large melon.”

©Studio Barcelona/Shutterstock.com

Do Pumpkins Grow Year Round?

Pumpkins generally require a frost-free growing period of around 75 to 100 days. As a result, they can only grow year-round in subtropical climates.Itt is best to plant your pumpkin seeds directly following the last fros in most environmentst, often in late spring.

Temperature strongly impacts pumpkin maturation — anything above 86 degrees Fahrenheit will affect the growth of this fruit. The good news is that a single pumpkin plant will provide numerous flowers, so with careful attention to your crop, you can come away with multiple pumpkins!

Taking weather conditions into account, the only things you need to focus on for a healthy pumpkin harvest are proper watering and pollination. Make sure to water your pumpkins every morning and on especially hot afternoons. However, don’to water on damp, cold, or rainy days as it can encourage rot in your pumpkin plants. They typically thrive off of 1 inch of water a week. 

Are Pumpkins Classified as Monoecious Plants?

Yes, pumpkins are classified as monoecious plants, meaning the same vine will grow both male and female flowers. The first eight flowers to blossom are male; typically, it takes around seven days after this initial bloom for the female flowers to follow. 

For successful fertilization to occur, the female pumpkin flower must receive pollen from the male stamen via bee pollination or hand-pollinating. To help increase bee presence, you can plant brightly colored flowers near your pumpkin patc, or install a bee house. Avoid using insecticides, as these will decrease the likelihood of successful pollination. Pumpkin flowers only bloom for one day (and only in the morning), so the more regular the presence of bees, the better your chance of pollination. To pollinate by hand, simply remove male flower petals and swab their pollen onto the female stigma.

With regular exposure to the sun, proper pollination, and ample watering, your pumpkin patch will soon be full of happy, healthy, flowering plants for your enjoyment!

Are Pumpkins a Healthy Food? 

Pumpkins are a rich source of vitamins, fiber, and a great low-fat, low-carb option for use in various dishes. 

A high presence of Vitamin A means plenty of antioxidants to counter inflammation, and it also helps strengthen the immune system and improve vision. The fat-soluble nature of pumpkins makes them a great energy source, and their abundance of fiber helps with digestion.

Pumpkins are rich in Vitamin C, which promotes skin and bone health while also benefiting blood flow. All of this can quicken the body’s natural healing process if you accidentally break or cut your skin. Large amounts of Vitamin E also help the immune system fight invasive diseases and diminish the amount of free radicals that pollute the human body when exposed to cigarette smoke, x-ray machines, and other industrial pollutants and chemicals endemic to daily life.

All in all, there are considerable health benefits when incorporating pumpkin into your diet, and plenty of options from pumpkin seeds, bread, and soup, to pumpkin pie, skin, and flower. 

Pumpkins are rich in Vitamin C, which promotes skin and bone health while also benefiting blood flow.

©pilipphoto/Shutterstock.com

How Can I Grow Pumpkins in my Garden?

The two most important factors for growing your own pumpkins are space and climate. A typical pumpkin patch generally uses up to 1000 square feet, so planning ahead is essential when sketching out your growing plot. When it comes to climate, pumpkins need 75 to 100 days of warm weather in order to avoid frost covering the plants and destroying your harvest. Once these requirements are met, pumpkins are relatively simple to grow.

Climate

If you live in a northern climate, the latter part of May is an ideal time to begin planting your pumpkins, while southern climates are good to start in early July. The average pumpkin plant will require 10 to 50 square feet, and it is a good practice to put manure/compost in with the soil to help the plants receive proper nutrition. When soil is too fertile with nitrogen, it can increase the number of pumpkin leaves on the vine but reduce the number of fruits. The fruits are what flower, so proper soil cultivation is a must.

The best soil temperature for pumpkin plants is between 65 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit. When planting your pumpkin patch, be sure to find an area that receives plenty of sunlight, and begin by creating rows 5 to 10 feet apart. This will ensure that they do not sap necessary sunlight or moisture from each other and increases your chance of a full and healthy pumpkin garden!

Space

Pumpkin seeds should be planted 6 to 12 inches away from each other and 2 centimeters deep. In the beginning weeks, it will be necessary to lead the vines away from the seed rows, but after this initial period, they will tend to grow where they have been directed. Once the plants have grown about 6 leaves, you should clip off the tips to help increase the likelihood of fruit growing.

Be sure to keep an eye on the temperature. Pumpkin plants are very susceptible to rot and complications from cold or damp weather. Every morning they should be watered, but if you are experiencing a hot spell, you should repeat the watering in the afternoon. Moderation is key. Both under and over-watering can have dramatic effects on your harvest.

When and How Do I Harvest my Pumpkins?

Pumpkins should be harvested once they have reached their full growth potential. Different types of pumpkins will vary in size, so consult your seed packet to know when they have fully matured.

When a pumpkin is ripe, it will have a dark, solid color and a stiff stem. The harder the skin, the riper the pumpkin! If your fingernail can perforate the skin with little pressure, then the pumpkin is not yet ready for picking.

Once your pumpkins are ready to harvest, choose a dry, warm day and use pruners or a sharp blade to remove the fruit from the vine. Cut about 4 inches above the top of the pumpkin, and do not transport the pumpkin via its stem. Pumpkins can bruise easily, so carry them with care!

fairytale pumpkin growing in garden

When a pumpkin is ripe, it will have a dark, solid color and a stiff stem.

©SierraLemon/Shutterstock.com

How Did Pumpkins Become a Halloween Decoration?

Pumpkins are perhaps most famous in North America for their association with Halloween, but where did this connection come from? Like many American traditions, we can trace its origins back to the United Kingdom! 

The Roots of a Tradition

As the summer months turned to autumn in Ireland, England, and Scotland, turnips were harvested massively to provide sustenance for the months ahead. When Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, approached, it was common practice to carve demonic faces onto the turnips, hollow out their centers, and place candles inside them. People used to refer to these eerie roots as “punkies”. They symbolized nature’s cycles, where winter stood for death and decay. The turnips, with their ghostly inner lights, mirrored the mysterious lights people reportedly observed above bogs, which they believed to be spirits of the dead.

Even our time-honored tradition of trick-or-treating is an import from the UK. In Yorkshire, England, Halloween was also colloquially known as “Mischief Night.” Young boys and girls would roam their streets disguised in costumes, pranking the neighbors by making ghost noises on their doorsteps and fleeing the scene. 

“Mischief Night” was itself an echo of Samhain, a Celtic festival observed on November 1st that celebrated the turning of the seasons and the transition of souls to and from the afterlife. In the 8th century CE, the Catholic Church decided to shift All Hallows’ Eve, also known as All Saints’ Day, to November 1st. This decision led to a merging of the two traditions, and both started to contribute elements to the “Mischief Night.”

By the 1800s, with mass Irish and English immigration to America in full bloom, these Halloween customs began to evolve. Pumpkins became a welcomed replacement for turnips due to their relatively softer skin, which is how we came to celebrate Halloween in its current incarnation. 

Halloween was also colloquially known as “Mischief Night.”

©Romolo Tavani/Shutterstock.com

The photo featured at the top of this post is © AN NGUYEN/Shutterstock.com


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Sources
  1. The Atlantic, Available here: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/10/a-brief-history-of-everyone-who-ever-lived/537942/
  2. History, Available here: https://www.history.com/news/pumpkin-facts-halloween-jack-o-lantern
  3. Abma's Farm, Available here: https://www.abmasfarm.com/the-world-of-pumpkins-squash-and-gourds/#:~:text=The%20main%20difference%20between%20squash,Native%20Americans%20harvested%20them%20too.
  4. Britannica, Available here: https://www.britannica.com/story/why-do-we-carve-pumpkins-at-halloween