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You see them evey year around this time, those pumpkins, squashes, and gourds with bumpy or warty exteriors in shades of green, yellow, orange, and white. Did you ever wonder how they got that way? Well I did, and I've looked into the matter, making some interesting findings to report.
Believe it or not, pumpkins are naturally warty. It was only through years of selective breeding that the smooth-hulled forms we know today came about; as this is the form that most appealed to consumers and thus proved most marketable. Some consumers value the bizarre aesthetic of bumpy pumpkins and gourds however, and so some plant breeders have worked to bring the bumps back. The trouble is, pumpkins in their naturally bumpy form aren't usually uniform in the spread and arrangement of their bumps, and so bumpy cultivars must be crossed repeatedly with one another to enhance their bumpiness into a more regular symmetry. According to Roy Pearman, director of sales and marketing for Siegers Seed Company in Holland, Michigan, it takes at least 10 generations of cross-breeding to produce a pumpkin that's adequately warty. Siegers markets a number of extra-warty pumpkin varieties under its Super Freak label, including 'Gargoyle', 'Knucklehead', and 'Goosebumps'.
Selective breeding isn't the only thing that produces bumpy pumpkins. Those plants afflicted with viral diseases such as cucumber mosaic virus, papaya ring spot virus, squash mosaic virus and zucchini yellow mosaic virus can have their normally smooth fruit transformed into bumpy orbs. These diseases also manifest in stunted vine and leaf growth, plus the namesake light and dark patches on leaf surfaces. These diseases are spread by the feeding of aphids, which transfer the viruses from infected plants to healthy ones. If you don't know whether the pumpkins you're growing are supposed to be naturally bumpy or if you're dealing with a viral infection, the bumps produced as a result of a virus appear to be emerging from the pumpkin's shell while those that occur naturally appear to be resting on the surface.
Mosaic viruses can actually be artificially induced in healthy, smooth-hulled pumpkins to achieve an instant bumpy effect. This practice isn't common, but viruses have found their uses in various other horticultural outlets. The Tulip breaking virus has been used by tulip growers for centuries to produce tulips with multi-colored petals. Tulips normally have petals in just one color, but when their bulbs are infected with Tulip breaking virus, their flowers grow to have stripes and streaks of multiple colors. Some citrus trees have also been artificially dwarfed through forced viral infection, resulting in smaller plants that are easier to harvest.
Back on the subject of pumpkins, squashes, and gourds of the highly textured sort, we have one more pressing question to answer. Can you eat them? For pumpkins and squashes, the answer is yes. The bumpy ornamental varieties only differ from their smooth counterparts in appearance, and are prepared and cooked just the same. Ornamental gourds on the other hand are inedible. You can tell a gourd from a squash by the thickness of the rind. Squashes have thin, soft skin, while gourds thick, hard rinds and a bitter, unpleasant taste. Always be sure to check the exterior skin texture before purchasing squash to eat.
Mitchell Vaughan, Auburn University Department or Horticulture and Extension Graduate Student, Fall 2016
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