Pumpkin probing: Researchers at test farm gather valuable data on the orange orbs

out frBy Colby Dunn • SMN Correspondent

What makes the stem of one pumpkin better than another for chunkin’? Why is one gourd so tiny, yet its neighbor so plump? What tints their hues from muted to mottled to blinding fluorescence? And will they grow up the same again and again, year after year? 

While such Seussian musings may sound like they belong more in children’s poems than scientist’s papers, they’re actually real research questions asked each year by the Mountain Research Station in Waynesville. Though admittedly, they probably phrase them a little differently. 


Each year, as pumpkin mania grips the rest of the nation, the researchers at the station gear up to claim their slice of the proverbial pumpkin pie – or proverbial pumpkin latte, if you prefer. They’re hoping their efforts will deliver better pumpkins for better lattes, pies and bottom lines in the future. 

“It was started when some of the seed companies expressed an interest in working with us on it,” said Kaleb Rathbone, superintendent at the Mountain Research Station, “and then it was information that was needed by the growers because it wasn’t information that’s readily available.”

Though the roundest, orange variety takes up most of the real estate in our collective pumpkin imagination, there are actually dozens upon dozens of varieties of pumpkins. The winter squash family tree — cucurbita, if you’d like to get Latin and scientific about it — stretches its branches in a lot of directions, and its reach grows year on year as seed companies breed new varieties to feed the public appetite for pumpkin. 

But the world is also a big and varied place, and what thrives here might shrivel and starve on the west coast, and a species that yields a bumper crop in Boston might die on the vine in Waynesville. How’s a farmer to know just what his soil can work with? For other crops, especially finicky, big money foods like grapes, have a lot of good data to work with, and a lot of historical information for comparison. Pumpkins, not so much. 

Enter the Mountain Research Station. Their project is actually a joint effort between N.C. State University, the University of Tennessee and themselves, of course, and it’s the seed companies footing the bill. It’s good for them because it gives them solid, independent information about which of their varieties, new and old, perform best in this region, and from there it’s a simple leap into applications for marketing, product distribution and a whole host of other things. 

For local growers, it gives them the same valuable information and year-to-year comparisons that allow them to choose varieties that are going to give them the best yield or grow best to suit their purposes, whether that’s producing a delicious baking pumpkin, a prize winning gargantuan behemoth of a species, or a colorful ornamental to grace their customers’ centerpieces. It’s vital information for many regional farmers, many of whom supplement their income from other more common crops with a yearly pumpkin haul, or replace the financial hole once filled by cultivating tobacco. 

The project, said Rathbone, doesn’t just look at how, when, and where they grow, either. They harvest them too, and gather data on use characteristics, as well. Their fields filled with hundreds of pumpkins, from the tiniest baby gourds to 200-pound mammoths have now been plucked bare and readied for next season, but the pumpkins’ work is not yet finished.

“Some of the pumpkins are developed primarily for ornamental purposes and others are bred more for cooking and we evaluate those,” he said. “This year, we had some that are primarily for cooking, and we are doing a nutritional analysis on those and as well as actually having some chefs use them in baking to see how they perform in the kitchen.”

Though he didn’t mention if they have any openings for taste testers, chances are that the efforts of the project, the largest of its kind in North Carolina, are already reaching your pie, coffee cup or favorite pumpkinized treat. 

“We provide that information to growers in the region,” Rathbone said. “It’s real-world information, so that they can know what to expect if they plant a particular variety. If you didn’t have trials like this, the only information they would have to go by is kind of a brief description in a seed catalogue from folks who are marketing them. It provides a side-by-side comparison and it provides unbiased data.”

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