Other than the cooler weather, (thank goodness), I think one of my fall favorites is seeing all of our porches decorated with beautiful mums and pumpkins. And although they are great fall decorations I’ve never really known why we associate them with fall and the Thanksgiving holidays, so I set out to find out.
Well, first, it turns out the mum’s fancy name is chrysanthemum. And it is an ancient flower, cultivated in China as far back as the 15th century. But the chrysanthemum traveled further, and by the time it reached the United States during colonial times, it regained its popularity so much that it is now known as the undisputed “Queen of the Fall Flowers.” Fall is the season of this flower, a time of tranquility, completeness and abundance following the harvest. Nowadays in North America, nothing signifies fall quite like chrysanthemums. For many of us, our introduction to the chrysanthemum was a corsage at Homecoming football games. Mums remain the most widely grown pot plant in the country and are one of the longest lasting of all cut flowers. There are many species of mums, hundreds of varieties with blooms that can be as frilly as a cheerleading pompom or as dainty as a daisy. They come in a huge range of colors including white, yellow, orange, lavender, purple, red and bicolor. They’re easy-to-grow and can be used in beds, borders and containers. They also attract butterflies in the fall and make great cut flowers, lasting up to two weeks in a bouquet. They’re usually the last plant to bloom before frost, ushering your garden into the big sleep of winter with a last bang of color.
OK, but what about pumpkins? From The Great Pumpkin to pumpkin pie to pumpkin spice lattes, the pumpkin is an American icon. Nothing signals the start of fall like the arrival of pumpkins. It makes sense why we would stock up on pumpkins and display them on our front porches and tables. They’re a seasonal crop. Plus, pumpkins boast all of the familiar cozy and classic notes of fall. Pumpkins are actually a “fruit,” and not a “vegetable.” They are in fact the world’s largest fruit. They are considered a fruit, because they grow on a vine and contain seeds.
Originating in Central America over 7,500 years ago, archaeologists discovered the oldest domesticated pumpkin seeds in the Oaxaca Highlands of Mexico. These pumpkins didn’t look anything like the orange variety we are accustomed to today. The original pumpkin was a small, hard ball with a bitter taste. In the early 1800’s, decorative pumpkins called jack-o’-lanterns were carved to celebrate the autumn harvest season.
It’s an unspoken rule that you can’t have Thanksgiving dinner without serving a pumpkin pie for dessert right? Well turns out the colonists and indigenous people ate pumpkins and squash frequently in the 1600s, so gourds were probably served at the first Thanksgiving. However, they didn’t have butter, sugar, and other sweet ingredients to turn the pumpkins into dessert—which means there was no pie. The earliest versions of sweetened pumpkin dishes were actually pumpkin shells that had been cleaned out and filled with ginger-spiced milk, then roasted by the fire. In the 1800’s it became stylish to serve pumpkin pies for the Thanksgiving holiday, which is still true today with over 50 million baked yearly.
So what’s the short answer? Mums and pumpkins add beautiful fall colors to our yards and tables and man does that pumpkin pie taste good.
Happy Thanksgiving from the Smith County Master Gardeners.