Jack-o'-lanterns and other pumpkin facts

The custom of displaying pumpkins outside the home during Halloween dates back hundreds of years to Great Britain, and the original practice did not involve pumpkins.

It all started with the tale of Stingy Jack, a scoundrel who tricked the devil into sparing his soul from eternal damnation. The problem was that Stingy Jack wasn't good enough for heaven either. When Jack died he met the devil who handed Jack an ember from Hades, which he put in Jack's trusty turnip lantern and instructed Jack to be on his way.

Jack's spirit carrying the flickering lantern was destined to roam the countryside for eternity searching for a place to rest.

So began the story of Jack of the lantern.

The atmospheric phenomenon called will-o'-the-wisp, which is a display of flickering lights visible over open bogs and lakes throughout the British Isles, is often attributed to Jack wandering about with his turnip lamp.

Over the years Jack of the lantern was shortened to jack-o'-lantern. It was believed that leaving candles in vegetables such as turnips, gourds and potatoes adorned with scary appearances outside their door would ward off evil spirits such as Jack.

This tradition made its way to the New World, where the large pumpkin became the choice for the carving of the jack-o'-lantern.

Speaking of pumpkins, did you know that a world record pumpkin weighing in at 1,810.5 pounds was grown by Chris Stevens in New Richmond, Wis., in 2010.

Chris Steven's champion pumpkin

Photo from Mike Kay

Maryland's state champion pumpkin was grown by Anthony Watson in Kensington and weighs 713.5 pounds. The largest pumpkin pie on record was baked in New Bremen, Ohio, last year, weighing in at 3,699 pounds, and it was 20 feet in diameter. If you wish to bake this pie you will need 1,212 pounds of pumpkin, 2,796 eggs, 525 pounds of sugar, 109 gallons of milk, 14.5 pounds of cinnamon and 7 pounds of salt.

The most jack-o'-lanterns lit in one place happened last year in Boston where 30,128 pumpkins were lit in unison.

The World Championship Punkin Chunkin Association sponsors the annual competition and festival near Lewes, Del., the first weekend following Halloween. This year, the festival will be held Nov. 4 to 6 in Bridgeville, Del.

This competition involves hurling pumpkins using a number of devices including slingshots, catapults, centrifugals, trebuchets and pneumatic cannons. During the first competition, in 1986, a pumpkin was chucked 178 feet using a rather crude slingshot.

Over the years, the hurling devices became much more sophisticated and efficient and the pumpkins chucked much greater distances. The longest chuck at the WCPCA in 2010, using a large pneumatic cannon, was 3,755.65 feet. The world record pumpkin chuck was set last year in Moab, Utah, with a chuck of 5,545.43 feet, which is more than a mile long!

World record pumpkin chucker

Photo from Mike Kay

Pumpkins are nutritious, containing a lot of vitamin A, carotene and fiber. Consuming pumpkins is supposed to cure excessive freckles, be a remedy for snakebite, and help prevent prostate cancer in men.

Nature Notes for 10/30/2011