Great Pumpkin! It’s A Fruit, Not A Vegetable

Pumpkin is a fruit, not a vegetable

For those of you who thought pumpkin was a vegetable, think again. It’s a fruit. For me, that changes everything when it comes to baking pies for Thanksgiving.

My first experience with pumpkin pie was back in the 60’s. Each year, we shared Thanksgiving with another family who, like us, were transplants to Delaware. We alternated between houses for years.

My mother disliked cooking with a vengeance, so the years that fell at our house were accompanied by a certain amount of tension. But, there was one exception. Being a mathematician, she looked at baking as a science and prided herself on the precision of her fruit pies. They included such traditional Thanksgiving favorites as apple, pecan and mincemeat.

Unfortunately, however, we children saved our accolades for our neighbor’s pumpkin.

Dark brown and gingery, the pie tasted like a giant soft cookie. My mother would shake her head, insisting out of earshot that it wasn’t pumpkin pie at all, but a failed attempt at the Thanksgiving staple. We gobbled it down voraciously nonetheless. And from that point forward, I always thought of pumpkin as a pie apart and the vegetable in the group.

It wasn’t until later that I discovered that pumpkin pie is usually orange and not brown. But by then my lifelong obsession with the fruit was born.

What makes it a fruit

Pumpkins are part of the Cucurbitaceae family, a large family of plants that encompasses over 900 species. Technically pumpkins are a cultivar of squash. Often they are referred to as gourds, which are a cultivar of squash, too. In the United States, any round orange squash is likely to be called a pumpkin. But, according to the Missouri Botanical Garden (my go-to source for plant reference) there is no botanical difference. Pumpkins and gourds are both squash and all of them are fruits.

Squash, gourds and pumpkins are all fruits

Fruits, you say. But how can that be? Well in the world of botany, a fruit is the edible, seed-bearing structure of a flowering plant. Formed in the plant’s flower, the female parts of the flower (including the ovary) become seeds when fertilized. Then the ovary develops into a fruit.

Pumpkin fruit

Plants use fruits as a means to disseminate their seeds. Some seeds are distributed by the wind, but many plants must rely on birds and other animals to disperse them through their feces. These fruits employ such strategies as bright color, plump flesh and increased sugar to enhance their visibility.

Although they aren’t sweet, squash (and by association, pumpkin) are still the textbook definition of fruit. Other surprising fruits include tomatoes, beans and green peppers although most people would refer to them as vegetables.

Vegetable is a vague term anyway

According to Live Science, the term vegetable has no meaning botanically. Most plants that we refer to as vegetables are actually parts of a plant, like leaves, stems, tubers, bulbs and roots. These plants include lettuce, spinach and kale (leaves), rhubarb (stem), artichokes, garlics, onions and fennel (bulbs) and potatoes, turnips and carrots (roots).

Bean and peas, however, are not vegetables but a type of fruit, in this case the fruit being the bean. Luckily they have their own term, legumes, which helps keep things in perspective. (Peas, by the way, are seeds that grow in a pod, which is the fruit.)

The pea pod is the fruit

Confused? Not to worry, berries are indeed fruits. Like pumpkins, they are fleshy fruits derived from a single flower with one ovary that contains several seeds. According to botanists, this makes tomatoes, eggplants, grapes and chili peppers berries, too.

Eggplants are berries

What aren’t berries, technically speaking, are strawberries, blackberries, mulberries and raspberries. These are known as aggregate fruits, composed of mini fruitlets from many ovaries fused into a single structure. Their seeds aren’t contained in the fleshy pulp, but on the outside in the fruits’ receptacles.

Strawberry seeds are on the outside of the fruit

Fruit pie recap

So back to the pies and Thanksgiving. Here are the fruits: Apple (obvious), pecan (the seed of a drupe fruit), mincemeat (a combination of several fruits) and pumpkin.

And here are the vegetables: Sweet Potato Pie

Our neighbor has long since passed away and with her the recipe for her dark brown, ginger-cookie-like pie. Still, I feel a familiar joy spring up each year when the first orange-colored tarts begin appearing in the bakeshop. One bite and I am transported back to my youth and my first taste of ‘vegetable’ pie. I’m still searching for her recipe.


Shooting The Breeze With The Head Of Versailles’ Kitchen Garden

Antoine Jacobsohn, Head of the King’s Kitchen Garden at Versailles

What if you could walk down the street and, next to shrubs and other flowers, fruits and vegetables were growing? That’s the hope of Antoine Jacobsohn, Head of the King’s Kitchen Garden at the Palace of Versailles. I spent an afternoon with Jacobsohn recently when he came to DC’s Alliance Française to speak about his role in managing this famous French garden.

About Antoine Jacobsohn

So who is Antoine Jacobsohn? Few would guess from his perfect French accent that he actually hails from the United States, from New Jersey, to be exact. An avid Francophile, Jacobsohn moved to France in his early 20s after graduating from Cornell University’s College of Agriculture. After pursuing a series of gardening-related jobs, he eventually landed at Versailles where in 2008 he became director of the vegetable and fruit gardens at the palace known as the King’s Kitchen Garden (Le Potager du Roi in French.)

Jacobsohn’s garden is not part of the ornamental gardens at Versailles; rather, it is located on a 24-acre plot smack dab in the middle of the city. Noting the “urban desert” that surrounds it, he finds this worrisome for the future as city dwellers have increasingly less access to food. He believes we need to rethink how we shape our gardens by putting more emphasis on incorporating fruits and vegetables into the design.

“People can recognize spinach on a shelf, but not in the ground,” he said.

In the future that Jacobsohn envisions, fresh produce would not only taste great, but it would be easily accessible to the public. Towards this end, he and his team of gardeners are focusing on innovation and experimentation, all while respecting the time-honored techniques honed over centuries in the Versailles gardens. He hopes to revolutionize the way people interact with their food while putting the world more in sync with its environment.

About the King’s Kitchen Garden

The Versailles fruit and vegetable garden (known in French as Le Potager du Roi) was created in the 17th century to provide fresh fruit and vegetables for Louis XIV and his court. The King appointed Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie, an accomplished vegetable and fruit gardener, as director of the project. His task? To take a swamp on the property and turn it into a working garden.

Jean Baptiste de La Quintinie

To accomplish this, Quintinie drained the swamp and brought in tons of soil, which he then enriched with horse manure from the King’s stables. Versailles’ architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart created the layout for the garden. The formal plan called for 29 terraced garden squares arranged around a central fountain.

Original plan for le Potager du Roi

La Quintinie’s genius lay in his deep understanding of plants and his ability to make things grow. To Mansart’s plan, he added tall walls and terraces designed to trap sun and heat with the goal of encouraging microclimates to develop.

In addition to providing sheltered areas where fruits and vegetable could thrive, the towering walls also served as supports for fruit trees and today they showcase La Quintinie’s grand artistry in producing sculpted and espaliered trees. Some of these fruit tree shapes (click link for great photos of some of these amazing shapes) are so complicated that they take up to 15 years to develop.

The Sun King so loved La Quintinie’s garden that he ordered a parapet walk to be created so he and his entourage could study his gardeners at work.

Today’s garden is rooted in discovery

‘A good gardener must have passion for new discoveries’ – Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie (Instruction pour les jardins fruitiers et potagers 1690)

From its earliest days, the King’s Kitchen Garden was focused on problem solving and innovation. The ready availability of fresh horse manure and experimentation with different kinds of glass and bell shelters helped La Quintinie develop elaborate techniques for producing fruit out of season. And the array of produce the kitchen garden was able to grow was staggering. According to records, there were 50 different varieties of pears, 20 varieties of apples and 16 types of lettuce, to name just a few.

Today the Potager is run by the Ecole Nationale Supérieure du Paysage (National School of Landscape Architecture) whose logo is a stylized version of the central square of the kitchen garden. Jacobsohn believes this logo is important because it represents the central question posed by today’s gardens. That is, how do you transition from garden to landscape and back again?

To address this conundrum, students at the school follow a progression of studies. The first year, they learn about creating gardens. The second, they study garden spaces. Finally, the third year is devoted to working on large-scale infrastructure projects such as railroad tracks that crisscross the landscape and connect one landscape to another.

The golden Grille de Roi provided private entrance for the King to the garden

Jacobsohn sees a fundamental contradiction between the way historical gardens were managed and the way today’s landscape architecture schools view their craft: namely, students think of themselves more as conceptualizers or creators, and not necessarily as gardeners. To address this, the students at Versailles have the opportunity to work in the garden, to feel how the garden communicates with them and to learn about the soil.

“What’s most important to me,” said Jacobsohn, “are the gardeners. You can have a space without gardeners, but without gardeners, a garden doesn’t exist.”

Today’s Potager maintains its central fountain/Photo via Alliance Française

Jacobsohn and his team of gardeners (of which there are just nine) strive daily to balance historic gardening practices with contemporary understandings. The garden “collection” now includes 400 old and recent varieties of fruit and as many vegetables grown specifically for the public. Great taste, eco-friendly growth practices and historical value all take precedent, and each year, the King’s Kitchen Garden produces about 40 tons of fruit and 20 tons of vegetables all of which they sell at the King’s Kitchen Garden store.

Fresh produce from today’s King’s Kitchen Garden/Photo via Alliance Française

Down the line, Jacobsohn would like to see the garden increase its output, which raises the question: How does an historical garden adhere to old methods and still be great fruit producers given modern pests and diseases? Jacobsohn notes that if the garden is to continue producing in large quantities, these two things have to go hand in hand.

For example, although pear trees have been cultivated around the central fountain for centuries, they require herbicides and other invasive measures to remain productive. Jacobsohn, who strives to be as eco-friendly and chemical free as possible, raises the controversial idea of someday trading them out for less disease-prone plum trees.

“It is worth remembering,” said Jacobsohn, “that an historical space was created to be new, not old, and as such should inspire innovation.”

Opened to the public in 1991, the King’s Kitchen Garden now hosts many cultural events in addition to being home to 200 landscape architecture students and 350 continuing education students. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage List. For more information click here for the official website.