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.


Ten Great Ideas For Decorating With Gourds

If you’re like me, every October, when those big boxes of ornamental gourds land at the grocery store, your mind whirls with possibilities. The cute little shapes seem to embody the essence of fall. The problem is that once you get them home, the gourds are a bit lacking somehow. Sure, they look OK on their own in a bowl, but if you really want to get creative, design-wise, you’ll need to add some key seasonal ingredients.

Where did gourds come from, anyway?

Hard-shelled gourds have been around for a very long time. Archeological specimens indicate the bottle gourd (pictured below) was being grown as a domesticated plant in the Americas as far back as 10,000 years ago. It’s still a mystery as to how the gourds got to the New World from their native Africa. But a recent study indicates they may have floated here on ocean currents.

Bottle gourds growing in a garden

Today in the United States, there are three types of gourds that are typically grown: Lagenarias, or hard shells, that are mainly used in crafts; Luffas (also spelled loofah), most commonly used as sponges and Cucurbitas, a family of flowering plants that include the ones we call decorative or ornamental.

Cantine variety of ornamental gourds

A whole lot smaller than ordinary gourds, ornamental gourds are known for their curious forms. These include  bottle, kettle, pear, crown of thorns, egg and the popular cantine that looks like a miniature pumpkin. The unusual shapes result from the gourds’ tendency to cross-pollinate with each other as well as with larger pumpkins and squash. This allows for an endless supply of design possibilities.

Designing with ornamental gourds: Key elements

A good plan of action before getting started is to first assemble some seasonal items that will add color and interest to your ornamental gourds. If you’re considering a dry arrangement, leaves, twigs, nuts and feathers act as great accents. Try pheasant feathers, curly willow branches, walnuts or pinecones.

Pheasant feathers

Curly willow branches at


Walnuts’ large size make them the perfect accompaniment to gourds

Or, you can carve out your gourds to make mini vases for flowers, berries or vines. Try hypericum berries, orange bittersweet, purple, red or orange dahlias or yellow lilies.

Hypericum berries

Orange bittersweet

Assorted dahlias

Yellow lilies provide good color contrast

You can even add votive candles.


Putting it all together

Ready to get started? Here are some great sources of inspiration incorporating many of the items listed above. Click on the links for more detailed information about each idea.

1. Mini “pumpkin” and gourd wreath, Southern Living

Helen Norman for Southern Living

2. White gourds in dough bowl with cabbage and pine cones

3. Green gourd vase with red flower

4. Hollowed out gourds with votive candles

5. Purple and orange dahlias with bittersweet berries and leaves in acorn-shaped gourd vases

6. Orange and yellow gourds in a brown rustic basket

7. Minimalist sculpture with orange zinnias, flax leaf and feathery grass

8. Simply elegant: orange gourds in tall, thin vases with single branches of wild ivy

9. White gourd vase with pink gerbera daisies, magnolia leaves, mini green cantine gourds, ornamental cabbage and evergreen sprig

10. Stacked gourds in iron trellis with potted yellow mums

Happy designing!