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.