A THOUSAND AND
TODAY, WE KNOW OF THE EXISTENCE
OF 800 VARIETIES OF PUMPKIN OR SQUASH.
THERE MIGHT BE A THOUSAND,
PERHAPS, IF SCIENCE TRIES HARD ENOUGH.
EVERYTHING HAS A BEGINNING
Pumpkin is originally from America. The first finds of the plant date back to 7000 B.C. in Mexico. Besides corn and beans, pumpkin or squash was a staple food for the ancient civilisations of the Mayans, Incas and Aztecs. The first pumpkin/squash varieties arrived in Europe after the discovery of America. The nice colourful fruits became favourite seafarer souvenirs. Moreover, pumpkins added some diversity to their menus on long voyages. The oldest pumpkin seeds date back to the 17th century and were found in the historical centre of the city of Amsterdam.
IT'S ALL ABOUT DIVERSITY
The pumpkin plant family (Cucurbitaceae) comprises more than 100 genera and more than 800 species, of which only five are of major importance worldwide as edible squash. Among those five, we only grow Cucurbita pepo (field pumpkin/summer squash), Cucurbita maxima (giant pumpkin) and Cucurbita moschata (butternut squash). Despite the few species, their diversity in colour and shape is unmatched by any other family of crops. However, all pumpkin varieties have one thing in common: The colour of the flowers ranges from yellow to orange, and these flowers tend to be rather large. The Latin name Cucurbita has given rise to the word “gourd”; the word “cucumber” also seems to be derived from it, while the word pumpkin is associated with the Latin word ‘pepo’, or Greek pepon (melon) meaning gourd fruit.
The scientific name of Styrian oil squash is Cucurbita pepo L.var.Styriaca GREB. Many scientists believe that the skinless pumpkin seeds are due to a random mutation taking place towards the end of the 19th century in the region of Styria. In this context, a mutation refers to an unplanned alteration of the genetic cell structure. Geneticists call it a spontaneous loss (of function) mutation. Other researchers assume that the skinless variety was imported from the New World unnoticed. In that case their genetic home would not be Europe, nor in particular Austria, but indeed America. Whatever the reason, the seeds of the pumpkins growing in Styria suddenly ended up without a hull.
Later on, Mr. Tschermak-Seysnegg (1871-1962), an Austrian genetic scientist, took great interest in the cultivation of the skinless Styrian oil squash. A star was born. From that date, it became a great deal easier to extract oil than before.