Life Science Blog

Pumpkins of supernatural size

Growing pumpkins in which Cinderella could have ridden to the ball

October 28, 2011
Magic didn't make this pumpkin grow its monstrous girth: It's all in the genes. [Image Credit: Kate Szikora]

It’s not an exact science. In fact, some might argue it’s not exactly science. But for years a sect of gourd aficionados has dedicated itself to growing absurdly enormous pumpkins.

The heaviest pumpkin ever recorded weighed 1,810 pounds. It was farmed by Chris Stevens in Wisconsin in 2010. But you don’t have farm in the Midwest to grow record-shattering pumpkins. Previous record holders have hailed from Pennsylvania (1,469 pounds in 2005) and Rhode Island (1,689 pounds in 2007); actually, the Northeast is a hotspot for pumpkin growing. Quite a handful of the heaviest pumpkins ever recorded were weighed at the Topsfield Fair in Massachusetts.

On the other side of the country, in California, pumpkin-lovers are growing monster gourds, too. The Topsfield Fair shares its dominion of the giant pumpkin record list with Half Moon Bay, California, a town just south of San Francisco. The Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival offered $5,000 this October to anyone with a pumpkin heavy enough to break the world record of 1,810 pounds. Though no one unloaded a record-breaking pumpkin onto the scale this year, the grower of the fair’s heaviest pumpkin won six dollars per pound. With pumpkins weighing well over 1,500 pounds, you can do the math. Starting to think about growing a giant pumpkin next year?

One of our own here at New York University’s SHERP journalism program, Kate Yandell, has some secrets to share. She grew giant pumpkins during her youth in Pasadena, California. She says the first thing you need to grow a giant pumpkin is, fittingly, a giant pumpkin seed. There are several places online where you can purchase Atlantic Giant pumpkin seeds. It was an Atlantic Giant pumpkin that broke the world record in 2010. (Yes, giant pumpkins are a specific subspecies of pumpkin. Despite what the fairy tales say, huge pumpkins aren’t made from planting normal pumpkin seeds and placing a magical spell on them. You have to start with special seeds.)

When Kate was young the giant pumpkin buzz worked its way through her neighborhood, and soon everyone was passing around the bulging seeds that become monster pumpkins. “They’re like pumpkin seeds on steroids,” she says.

The best growers in the neighborhood, her family’s secret was great homemade compost, lots of water, and lots of room to grow. “We really let them spread out and take over the entire yard,” Kate says.

Kate estimates that her family could usually harvest five to seven good pumpkins each fall, including three really big ones. She’s not sure just how big, though, because she never weighed one. “It’s really hard to weigh a pumpkin when they’re too heavy to pick up. And all we had was a bathroom scale.”

On the competitive circuit, though, enthusiasts are keen to break the 2,000-pound mark with the next world’s heaviest pumpkin. The 1,000-pound mark was broken in 1996, but pumpkins just keep getting bigger.

One of the favorite superstitions of super-pumpkin growers is to plant seeds taken from inside record-breaking pumpkins. New record-breakers have been made this way. In fact, competitive pumpkin growers name the seeds they’re using by referencing the specific pumpkin the seeds came from. For example, Chris Stevens’ record-breaking 1,810-pound pumpkin was grown by a cross between a “1421 Stelts” seed and a “1186 Rodonis” seed. In other words, a cross between a seed from Dave Stelts’ 1,421-pound pumpkin and a seed from Bill Rodonis’ 1,186-pound pumpkin.

Even Atlantic Giant seeds are descendants of seeds taken from a particular pumpkin nicknamed the Atlantic Giant, grown by Howard Dill in 1979.

Maybe this selective breeding is why the pumpkins just keep getting larger, with no curbing of growth or fanaticism in sight.

“Everyone loves a big pumpkin,” Kate says. Certifiably true.

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About the Author

Kelly Slivka finished up her B.A. in English and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, after which she traded amber waves of grain for actual waves of water. The past three years, she’s been stalking endangered whales on the East Coast for various conservation and research institutions, a profession that has given her plenty of fodder for fascinating science writing, but no feasible outlet. Now, through NYU’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program she’s moved on to stalking all things new and cool in science and sharing it with, well, everyone! You can learn more about Kelly on her website, www.kellyslivka.com, and follow her on Twitter @k_sliv.

Discussion

1 Comment

Ashley Taylor says:

I’m having a little trouble relating to the number 1,186 pounds. About how many acorn squash would that be?

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