What's in a name? When it comes to pumpkins, not much.
The word pumpkin probably makes you think of a large, round orange specimen ready for carving, but any hard-skinned squash could be called a pumpkin—there’s no botanical distinction that makes a pumpkin a pumpkin.
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There are hundreds of varieties of edible squash and pumpkins (2, below), which all fall into three main groups: Cucurbita moschata, C. maxima, and C. pepo. Most of what we think of as winter squash belongs to C. moschata and C. maxima, while most summer squash and inedible gourds (1, below) belong to C. pepo (though Delicata and acorn squash belong there, too).
Whether you’re choosing a pumpkin to eat or display, talk to your local farmers at the market about the best uses for different varieties.
And in either case, follow Elizabeth Schneider’s guidelines: Choose a rock-hard specimen (if you can scratch it with your fingernail, it's too young); leave behind any pumpkins with bruises or soft spots; and if it has a light patch from where it was growing on the soil, the patch should be a warm yellow or orange color rather than greenish.
Gourds (1, above) aren’t just good for autumnal decorating of tables and front stoops. As Deborah Madison elaborates in Vegetable Literacy, even though they’re inedible, they’re often functional too. A few of the very wide-ranging uses she shares include: “water carriers, pipes, birdhouses, bowls, storage vessels, ladles, fishing floats, instruments, penis sheaths, and snuff boxes.” (They also make great fashion statements!)
It’s almost hard to follow up with edible pumpkins (2, above) after those, um, descriptive uses for gourds, but we’ll try. Even without a precise scientific definition, there are still a large number of winter squashes that are commonly identified as pumpkins. And because "pumpkin" is more fun to say than "hard-skinned winter squash," we’re calling all of the edible varieties we found at the farmers market pumpkins.
We've listed what cultivars we think they all are; let us know in the comments if you have other ideas as for what they might be:
Regardless of whether you're planning to carve or eat your pumpkin, don’t toss the innards from any edible variety. Everyone loves roasted pumpkin seeds, and Deborah Madison recommends putting pumpkin guts (both the seeds and the fibers—3, above) to use by making stock. This works even if you already roasted your pumpkin, too—just add the cooked skin!