It’s October 31st, and you likely have evening plans. Maybe you’ll be trick-or-treating from door to door, or partying with cleverly costumed friends. (I’ll probably be a mad scientist; I’ve already got the lab coat…). Maybe you’ll pass by a pumpkin patch along the way, and remember that each and every Halloween, Linus van Pelt—steadfast friend of Charlie Brown—planned on spending the night in the local pumpkin patch waiting for the Great Pumpkin to arrive.

A field of pumpkins.
Each year, Linus waited in a pumpkin patch just like this one for the Great Pumpkin to arrive. While Linus never saw his hero in person, maybe he learned a bit about horticulture or botany while standing out in the field… Image: ©

Now, I’ve spent a little bit of time in pumpkin patches myself—but I’m more likely to be poking about at the plants and doing my best to fit the pumpkins into my plant press. (Imagine trying to fit that on a flat herbarium sheet). Given that, my colleagues and I wondered, what would a botanist make of a giant flying pumpkin? Other than running away in terror, or course?

To start, what would a botanist say to the Great Pumpkin? Would it be presumptuous and too familiar to call out the Latin name Cucurbita pepo, or is “Great Pumpkin” more respectful?

A large pumpkin grows at the foot of a scarecrow, in a garden beside a greenhouse.
Each year, Carleton University Greenhouse Manager Ed Bruggink grows large pumpkins from prize-winning varieties near the university campus. These pumpkins are always large, but have yet to attract the Great Pumpkin on Halloween. Image: Ed Bruggink © Ed Bruggink

And where does the Great Pumpkin come from? Just like Santa, she (or he—both are correct: pumpkins have male and female flowers on the same plant) has got to have a base of operations. It turns out that it’s hard to pinpoint where pumpkins originate from because the species has been cultivated by humanity for thousands of years. For that reason, the one pumpkin species has hundreds of forms that have driven taxonomists like me up the walls for years. I guess it’s easier to hide for the other 364 days of the year if you’re a shape shifter with mysterious origins.

A wild cucumber with one fruit.
The wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata) can be found growing around the National Capital Region, often in old fields, where it tends to flourish. Image: Aung © Public domain

Now, while Linus waited faithfully each year for the Great Pumpkin, you just know that there is an army of helpers behind the Front Gourd (too much?). Who better than to call on for these occasions than family? Fortunately, the Great Pumpkin’s family (Cucurbitaceae) is found worldwide, and a member, the wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata), can be found growing right here in Ottawa.

Finally, what makes the Great Pumpkin Great? How does it get so big? (We’re going to gloss over the whole “flying intelligent plant” bit here). Well, it’s really all a matter of breeding. We’ve been cross-breeding plants for millennia, seeking bigger, tastier, more useful organisms. Cross-pollinating large pumpkins together produces even larger pumpkins, and the seeds of these offspring are often sold online for hundreds of dollars. Maybe the Great Pumpkin comes from a long line of successively greater pumpkins.

A man sits on the floor, surrounded by herbarium sheets.
I waited all night in a patch of flattened Cucurbita and Echinocystis in the National Herbarium of Canada, and the Great Pumpkin didn’t show up! Maybe it doesn’t work with flat plants… Image: Micheline Beaulieu-Bouchard © Canadian Museum of Nature

Now, I’m going to guess that you aren’t going to sit around in a pumpkin patch waiting for the Great Pumpkin to show up (Spoiler Alert: It doesn’t). But I’m guessing you won’t look at a pumpkin patch—and the giant orange fruit within—the same way again.