With Fall here and the pumpkins almost ready, we thought we would share some fun and informative things about the often over looked pumpkin. Rich in folklore and medicinal uses, pumpkin is more than a symbol of autumn. When you say pumpkin most people think of jack o lanterns on Halloween night and yummy cinnamon-laced pies at Thanksgiving. And while those are some of the fun & tasty ways to use pumpkin they are by no means its only uses.

Pumpkins are a type of squash and originated, like potatoes and tomatoes, in the Americas. The name pumpkin is derived from the Greek “pepon” which, depending on the reference source, means either “ripe,” “mellow,” “cooked by the sun,” or “large melon.”

According to archaeological records in Mexico (8750 B.C.), c. pepo appears to be one of the first domesticated plant species. Pumpkins and other species of squash, along with beans and corn, were considered the “three sisters” by Native Americans, who planted them together. Native Americans roasted and dried pumpkin strips and used them to make everything from sleeping mats to flour. They also brewed the crushed seeds into a tea to treat such afflictions as edema, gout, kidney stones, and bladder infections.

When the first explorers arrived in America, they noticed the pumpkin plant in the cultivated maize fields of the Native people and learned that it they utilized pumpkin for both medicine and for food. An emulsion made from a mixture of pumpkin and watermelon seeds served to heal wounds for members of the Yuma tribe. The Catawbas ate the fresh or dried seeds as a kidney medicine, while the Menominees drank a mixture of water and powdered squash and pumpkin seeds to ease the passage of urine. In settler folk medicine the ground stems of pumpkin were brewed into a tea to treat “female ills,” and the ripe seeds were made into a palatable preparation to dispel worms. It was used externally for rheumatism and swelling. A poultice of seeds and blossoms is applied to cactus scratches

Although Columbus carried pumpkin seeds back with him to Europe, the squashes grown from them were initially fed to pigs! It wasn’t until centuries later that their value became more appreciated in the Old World. In the New World settlers hollowed out pumpkins to fill them with milk, spices, and honey, and roast them in hot ashes. Voila! A pudding very similar to pumpkin pie!

The original Jack-O-Lanterns were not carved from pumpkins. They derived from an Irish fable about a wiley lad called Stingy Jack, who tricked the devil into promising not to take his soul. Unfortunately, however, heaven didn’t want Jack either! So he was doomed to wander the earth, his way lit only by a coal from hell inside a carved out turnip. Superstitious folks carved scary faces on turnips, potatoes, or beets and set them in their windows for the purpose of welcoming home the spirits of deceased ancestors as well as ward off Jack and other wandering spirits. Hence the name Jack-O-Lantern.

And, of course, in story and rhyme, pumpkins have come in handy for everything from helping Peter Pumpkin-eater contain his wife, to “chauffeuring” Cinderella around, to terrifying Ichabod Crane in the in “The Legend of Sleepy Hallow”

Pumpkin seeds are a nutritional powerhouse containing 30% unsaturated fixed oil (which includes linoleic and oleic fatty acids) amino acids (especially cucurbitacins), vitamins B,C & E, beta-carotene and other carotenoids, and minerals, notably zinc, potassium, and magnesium. Pumpkin is low in calories and a terrific source of fiber. Most people aren’t aware of the fiber content of canned pumpkin because it seems so creamy. Just one half-cup serving provides 5 grams of fiber-more than you’re getting from most cereals.

In addition pumpkin, like all plants rich in carotenoids, may have the ability to help to decrease the risk of various cancers, including those of the lung, colon, bladder, cervical, breast, and skin. Carotenoids are concentrated in a wide variety of tissues, where they help protect us from free radicals, modulate our immune response, enhance cell-to-cell communication, and possibly stimulate production of naturally occurring detoxification enzymes. Carotenoids also play a major role in protecting the skin and eyes from the damaging effects of ultraviolet light.

It is believed that the amino acid cucurbitin, is the active principle responsible for the anthelmintic (agents which paralyze and expels intestinal worms) effects of this plant. While unsaturated fatty acids found in the seeds are an efficient diuretic, and are thought to be beneficial in the treatment of prostate problems. The phytosterol cucurbitacins in the seeds also, appears to inhibit the conversion of testosterone into dihydrotesterone. The presence of zinc and amino acids further treat prostate problems. Pumpkins seeds are used for prostate problems, and have a reputation for being an aphrodisiac so have been used for loss of libido.

So therapeutically you can use the seeds as a diuretic to sooth and tone the urinary tract, ease gout and relieve postpartum swelling of the hands and feet. The seeds are also used ground  for round & tape worms, as well as other parasites. They are particularly useful against tapeworms in pregnant women and in children, for whom stronger-acting and toxic preparations are unsuitable. Pumpkin seeds and husks are also used to aid milk production in lactating mothers . The seeds have also been used to treat acne, where you simply eat pumpkin seeds daily for the zinc and carotenoids, and this can help to eliminate this condition.

Internally the high fiber content of pumpkin makes it a good bowel tonic and gentle bulking laxative. Applied to the skin, cold mashed pumpkin or winter squash soothes mild burns, sunburns, headaches, and neuralgia. The crushed leaves have been used as a poultice for sprains and bruises

Laboratory studies have found that an extract from pumpkin rinds had antifungal properties treating fungal infections include monilia (“yeast”) infections, athletes foot, and ringworm. The extract was applied directly to the fungal cell surfaces; therefore, pumpkin extract would be applied topically.

Studies have also suggested that pumpkin seeds can prevent the development and or progression of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and can act to lower cholesterol levels. As well research tests suggested that pumpkin seeds can promote the production of insulin, which controls blood sugar levels. Other studies have found that pumpkin seeds appear to have a hepatoprotective (liver-protective) effect; therefor, they may be a beneficial addition to the diet for those with liver disease.

Pumpkin seeds contain a high level of tryptophan (22mg/gram of pumpkin seed protein), the amino acid precursor to serotonin – which is itself converted to melatonin, the “sleep hormone,” in the evening. Research published in 2007 in the Canadian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology found that  pumpkin seed was taken in combination with a carbohydrate, a clinical effect similar to that of pharmaceutical-grade tryptophan was achieved.

So with all that pumpkin can do – maybe Linus wasn’t crazy for sitting in the pumpkin patch hoping to meet the Great Pumpkin afterall!