Monday, November 17, 2014

Bloomin' Bulbs Beat Winter Blahs

Coaxing spring-flowering bulbs to bloom during the winter is a popular trick for adding brilliant color to the home and a welcome boost to the spirit. Unfortunately, the trick does not work well for everyone, while even successful practitioners often look at the faded foliage and wonder what next?

The process of "forcing" bulbs simply means inducing plants to bloom ahead of schedule and out of their normal environment. This horticultural chicanery can be applied to almost any bulb, corm, or tuber, although the easiest subjects for beginners are generally paperwhite narcissus, fragrant hyacinth, large-flowering crocus, and amaryllis, the largest, showiest, and most versatile of the lot.

Other, slightly more difficult species include muscari, like grape hyacinths, colchicum, such as autumn crocus, snowdrops, freesia, and sweet-and- spicy Lily-of-the-valley.

Tulips and traditional garden daffodils are a bit more finicky, requiring better temperature control, brighter lighting, and so on, although many catalogs and gar- den centers will advertise some species more suitable for forcing, such as miniature hybrids that are more at home on windowsills.

Paperwhites (Narcissus tazetta) are especially popular, as they can be planted in either a light, porous soil mix or, more commonly, in shallow glass bowls or other attractive planters, using nothing more than a layer of water in clear or colored marbles, or pastel-tinted gravel, easily found at aquarium stores.

These narcissi are noted for their thin, delicate foliage and clusters of fragrant white flowers. Some indoor gardeners will plant clusters of five, seven, or more bulbs every two weeks or so to ensure an ongoing aromatic display throughout the holidays and late winter months.

Regrettably, these easy-to-grow paperwhites are native to the Mediterranean, and are not tolerant of our colder climate. Except for gardens in warmer zones from nine onward, the usual advice is to discard the bulbs. Personally, I would prefer taking a chance on planting them outdoors after the foliage has yellowed and died-back, rather than merely adding them to a compost pile. At any rate, the bulbs will have exhausted their energy reserves and cannot be saved for forcing again the following year, which is true of almost all forced bulbs.

On the other hand, you might try forcing a related narcissus species called Grand Soleil d'Or, which offers a deep yellow color with somewhat smaller clusters of blooms. These narcissi can be transplanted to your garden later in the fall and should provide a decent showing the following summer, improving each year thereafter.

The key to success with forced bulbs is keeping your cool - or, at least, keeping bulbs cool while they are rooting. And while there is a whole science to buying and storing bulbs in refrigerated conditions, any number of retailers offer "hardened- off" bulbs which have gone through the appropriate chilling process and are ready for forcing.

With these ready-to-go bulbs, you can select a number of planting options. Hyacinth or forcing jars are specially designed glass vessels appropriate for crocus, narcissus, or, naturally, hyacinths, which artfully support the entire bulb, allowing the roots to dip down into the water below. You can also employ a gravel medium for paperwhites, crocus, or colchicum, or plant them in a soil mix. For these and all other bulbs, use a shallow "bulb pan" with a loose potting medium of equal parts of soil, compost or peat moss, and vermiculite or perlite. Many bulb fanciers like to add a pinch of bone meal per bulb. A four-five inch pot works well for larger single bulbs like hyacinths, while a six-ten inch pot accommodates several large bulbs or a dozen smaller bulbs.

Keep species forced in water or set in gravel in a cool, dark room (ideally below 50 degrees F.) for at least several weeks, until the root system has become thoroughly established and the top shoot or stems start to elongate.

Soil-planted bulbs will also require cold storage at 35-48 degrees F. while roots are developing. Never allow bulbs to freeze, and keep the temperature below 55 degrees. The best locations are usually an unheated cellar, enclosed garage, insulated cold frame, or refrigerator. In a refrigerator, it is best to cover the pot with a plastic bag punched with several holes for ventilation. Keep the planting medium moderately moist. The length of chilling time required depends on the species, but usually averages 12-16 weeks. The longer the bulbs remain cool, the taller and fuller their flowers will be.

A fundamental mistake in forcing bulbs is skimping on the cold treatment. Often if bulbs fail to bloom, it is an indicator that the retailer did not allow the bulbs to remain dormant long enough, the bulbs were stored at too high a temperature, or the forcing temperature was too high.

After the bulbs have been chilled appropriately, move them into a somewhat warmer room (50-60 degrees F.) with indirect light for a week or so, until shoots or stems elongate and the buds begin to swell. It is now safe to move the pot into a bright window at normal indoor temperatures.

To keep the blooms for the longest possible period of time, it helps to move the pot into a cooler room in the evening and avoid direct sunlight.

After your bulbs have finished blooming, cut off the flower stalk above the base, but not the leaves! Treat your forced bulbs like a typical indoor plant, with bright light, periodic watering and fertilizing, all of which will help the bulb renew its energy stores for future growth and blooming.

Do not remove the foliage as it begins to yellow and wither, but do reduce watering significantly until all of the leaves have died back. At that point, as your bulbs enter their dormant phase, you should allow the soil to completely dry out, and either save the bulbs in their pots or, especially in the case of water-forced species, remove the bulbs or corms, gently rubbing them clean with a dry cloth, and store them in a cool, dry, and dark place in a mesh bag or paper bag, keeping a vigilant eye out for mold.

In the fall, these bulbs can be planted in your garden. Pay attention to required planting depths. Bulbs cultured in soil generally fare better than those in forcing jars or gravel, but within one, two, or more seasons, your bulbs will return to full bloom in their new, natural outdoor environment.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Monday, November 10, 2014

Taters and Tubers for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is fast approaching, a holiday full of swirling memories and preparations, like so many colorful autumn leaves. It’s a celebration of family and food and delightful traditions. And it can be a reminder that our traditions are actually anything but traditional.

I was rather young when I first learned that my family’s traditional Thanksgiving dinner was not the universal norm. We dined on turkey and stuffing, potatoes, gravy, sweet potatoes, cranberries, and pumpkin pie. Normal enough. However, elsewhere in the colonies, specifically Brooklyn, our Italian neighbors celebrated with their traditional Thanksgiving lasagna and antipasto platter.

Later, my wife and in-laws introduced me to the traditional Baltimore side dish of sauerkraut. Curiously, the denizens of Charm City have somehow failed to draw the logical connection between sauerkraut and hot dogs at ball games, but that’s another story.

For the most part, we imagine Thanksgiving as a timeless tableau, a generous feast first celebrated by grateful Pilgrims and kind-spirited Native Americans at the Plymouth Colony in 1641. And we generally envision an assortment of foods similar to our “traditional” Thursday spread, sauerkraut notwithstanding.

Alas, we are savoring more of myth than reality. The first Thanksgiving observance actually took place in Newfoundland, Canada, in 1578, almost 50 years before Plymouth. And when the Separatists of Plymouth finally did celebrate their “First Thanksgiving,” it was more likely held near the end of July a couple years later.

Don’t worry, however, there was undoubtedly a harvest celebration in 1621, and we can always trace our tradition to that event. But don’t expect any mashed potatoes or cranberry sauce.
Written accounts from the period indicate that such feasts included venison, mussels, cod, and herring. What, no turkey? It is possible that wild turkey (the game bird, not the bourbon) was served, although duck, goose and crane were more likely.

Bad news concerning sweet potatoes: Christopher Columbus may have brought the colorful tuber back to Europe in the late 15th century, but in 1621 no one in New England was enjoying baked sweet potatoes drizzled with maple syrup. Likewise for potatoes, the world’s favorite root crop. Boiled, baked, or mashed, the noble spud would not appear on New World tables for another 100 years or more. Fortunately, Native Americans had introduced the settlers to pumpkins and to numerous varieties of squash.

And while cranberry sauce may not have been available, as sugar was not to be had, the Native Americans would have had cranberries on hand. In fact, they often mixed the berries into their traditional travel food, pemmican, sort of a cross between beef jerky and granola bars. Moreover, it has been suggested that Indians may have taught the colonists to tame the tartness of the berry by boiling it along with maple syrup, which may have been the inspiration for cranberry sauce itself.

The colorful cranberry has almost as important a role in American agriculture as it does on the dinner table. Cranberry, along with the Concord grape and the blueberry, is one of the few native fruits commercially grown.

The plant’s name is traced to Crane-berry in the early 17th century, either because cranes were noted gobbling their way through the cranberry bogs, or, more colorfully, because the vine’s discrete pink flowers in spring resemble the head and bill of a Sandhill crane, or the scarlet lores (patch) above the crane’s eye.

Today, while cranberries are grown throughout North America, nearly half the total harvest originates in the bogs of Massachusetts. It seems to be a tradition that lives on.

And while the lowly potato is a relative newcomer to our traditional feast, its journey to our table was as difficult and tenuous as airport, train, and highway traffic the night before Thanksgiving.

Potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) were brought back to the “Old Country” some 50 years after Columbus made landfall. Like the tomato, it is another South and Central American member of the Solanacaea or deadly “Nightshade” family. And, like the tomato, potatoes were considered to contain aphrodisiac properties, on the one hand, or cause leprosy -- which was also associated with unbridled carnal activity. There are varied accounts of potatoes returning to the new world in the Virginia colonies as early as the 1630s, or to New England via Irish immigrants in the early 18th century.

More recently, in developed countries, 99 percent of all root crop production is in potatoes. And why not? They are famously high in fiber, carbohydrates, and protein, as well as vitamins B and C, and essential minerals such as magnesium, zinc, iron, and copper.

For the most part, they are relatively easy to grow, with hundreds of cultivars available, perfect for raised beds or even containers and tubs. For the adventurous gardener, russet or white potatoes might be all well and good, but what about the dazzling array of heirloom varieties, ranging from ‘Yellow Finn’ and ‘German Yellow,’ to red-skinned ‘Pontiac’ and ‘Red Norland,’ or even ‘All Blue’ and ‘Purple Peruvian?’ After all, what could be more traditional than old-fashioned heirloom varieties?

Sweet potatoes introduce another tradition: the annual confusion between sweet potatoes and yams. For the record, the so-called “true yams” (Dioscorea spp.) are actually of West African or Asian origin, and they are dry, white, and quite starchy – unlike the sweeter, delectable flesh of sweet potatoes with their deep yellow or reddish-orange tubers.

Sweet potato (Ipomoea batatus) is related to bindweed or morning glory, as its fast-growing vines will attest, and originated in Central or South America, possibly Brazil, Peru, or Equador.

There are generally two types of sweet potato, a dry-fleshed variety with white flesh, best grown in colder climates (and far too yam-like for comfort), and the moist-flesh or southern variety with which we’re happily familiar. Interestingly, the majority of sweet potatoes are grown in China, while it’s the second most important crop in Japan, where it is used to produce starch, wine, and alcohol. At home, nearly 30 percent of the sweet potatoes grown in the U.S. are cultivated in North Carolina, which also goes a long way to explain the South’s fondness for sweet potato, rather than pumpkin, pie.

Sweet potatoes can be rather versatile in the home garden. They can be cultivated normally, like potatoes, or even used as either an attractive ground cover, or interspersed in hanging baskets with trailing flowers. No promises, but the vines also infrequently produce pink flowers. In addition, by way of warning, I once surprised myself to find about two pounds of tubers growing in a hanging basket one fall season. I had only planted the vines to provide a light green contrast to other, darker foliage, little expecting a side dish.

You can start your sweet potato plantation by simply buying “slips” from local nurseries and garden centers, or through catalogs, for more unusual cultivars. About 25 slips will suffice for a family of four. You can also propagate your own from tubers which you or a neighbor have successfully overwintered from the garden. Don’t try to use store-bought tubers, as they are frequently treated with a compound precisely to prevent sprouting. Set your sweet potato in a glass of water, with one-third submerged. When the young sprouts are about six inches long pull them off (don’t cut them) and set them in water or moist sand until a dense mat of roots are formed. You can transplant them outdoors a few weeks after the last threat of frost. And, by the way, sprouting sweet potatoes is great fun for younger children. Many a school windowsill is covered with vines every spring.

For home composting devotees, note that sweet potatoes can be easily grown in a modest-sized bin filled with shredded leaves from the previous autumn. Be sure to keep the leaf mold moist for the first several weeks while roots are developing. By the following fall, your leaves will have mostly decomposed into a wonderful mulch, and your tubers will have grown freely and exuberantly in their fluffy medium.

Overall, sweet potato vines can grow up to four feet or more, although there are several cultivars with compact growth habits and shorter vines, which are ideally suited for barrels or patio containers, including ‘Bunch Porto Rico’ and ‘Vardaman.’

Other popular standard varieties include ‘Allgold’, ‘Heart-o-gold,’ ‘Nancy Hall,’ ‘Centennial,’ high-yielding ‘Beauregard,’ ‘Jewel,’ ‘Yellow Jersey,’ and ‘Southern Delight.’

And while sweet potatoes are an important part of our Thanksgiving tradition, they are gaining even more status as an important source of nutrition, with fiber, vitamins A and C, iron and calcium, antioxidants, and beta carotene. In fact, one sweet potato provides half the recommended daily allowance of beta carotene. It’s everything you need for a happy – and healthy – holiday. Just watch out for those tiny marshmallows!

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Monday, November 03, 2014

Blooms & Branches & Berries, Oh My!

You can beat the blahs of a winter landscape by remembering the three B’s of off-season gardening: blooms, branches, and berries. Admittedly, there are only a handful of introduced plants, and even fewer native species, which bloom and provide colorful relief during the gray days of mid-winter, with the striking and noteworthy exception of witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), alternately called common, fall- or winter-blooming witch hazel.

Our native variety is a relatively slow-growing small tree or upright shrub which begins its horticultural display in autumn with yellow fall foliage which soon turns to orange and golden-brown, and proudly heralds the beginning of its late-season blooming period. After the leaves have fallen, clusters of small, soft-scented yellow flowers appear along the branches from October through December. Each spidery clump consists of four twisted, fringe-like petals not quite one-inch long. Interestingly, the lemon-yellow ribbons tend to fully unfurl on warm sunny days, when we are lucky enough to get them, and, like most of us, curl up into a more compact mass when the weather turns cold and threatening.

More than a dozen non-native witch hazel cultivars have been gaining in popularity among winter gardeners, with dramatic new flower colors ranging from ruby-red and copper, to burgundy and bright orange-yellow, and featuring significantly later blooming periods, even into February, and a stronger fragrance. These low-maintenance hybrids are typically crosses of Chinese and Japanese witch hazels, and include favorites like ‘Jelena,’ which combines brilliant fall foliage in November with an encore of coppery red blooms as late as February and March, and ‘Arnold Promise,’ a brilliant yellow late-blooming cultivar developed by the Arnold Arboretum.

For more year-round color, garden designers have long cherished the subtle and sometimes spectacular twigs and trunks of our native dogwood species. Leading the list is red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea formerly stolonifera), also aptly called red-twig dogwood. This fast-growing specimen is a cousin to the white flowering dogwood with which we are more familiar, and quickly forms attractive thickets ideal for screening or habitat plantings.

Although its white flowers and berries are popular among songbirds like vireos, finch, and pine warblers, they are somewhat dull in appearance, a deficit more than offset by its brilliant red twigs and reddish-green bark. After a snowfall, nothing stands out in a winter garden more than the vivid red stems which seem to shoot up from a pure field of snow. In addition, goldfinches have been known to favor this species for a nesting site; their bright feathers flitting among the branches will ornament both shrub and garden alike.

Another attractive option is the yellow-twig dogwood (‘Silver and Gold’), a cultivar of red osier, renowned for its green and white variegated foliage, good autumn color, and, above all, bright golden bark.

Silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) takes its name from the grayish hairs along younger branches and flower buds, and features reddish-purple twigs and darker mahogany-brown bark. Silky dogwood also presents lovely flat creamy-white clusters of flowers in the spring, followed by bluish clusters of fruit in late summer, often lasting through fall and possibly winter.

The final and perhaps most important components for a winter garden are berries. Berry-bearing small trees and shrubs add a surprising splash of color and seem to stand out equally well against either snow-covered garden beds or leaden winter skies. Of equal importance, berries support scores of migrating and over-wintering birds, some of which, like cardinals, woodpeckers and bluebirds, add their own element of lively color to a landscape.

Topping most lists is winterberry or “possum haw” (Ilex verticillata), a deciduous native holly with upright, spreading stems reaching up to ten feet in height. Clusters of white flowers appear in April through May, producing bright reddish-orange to deep red berries which last through the winter, avian appetites notwithstanding. Keep in mind that winterberry is dioecious, having male and female flowers on respective plants, and requiring at least one male shrub for every three to four female specimens.

Native viburnum species, such as Arrowwood or American cranberry (V. trilobum), provide attractive clusters of white flowers in spring, brilliant fall foliage, and berries ranging from bright red to bluish-black in fall through winter. The species also provide an important source of fruit to more than fifty species of songbirds in our area.

Both red and purple chokeberries (Aronia species) take their name from colorful fruits which offer brilliant red and scarlet foliage in autumn, followed by bright red or blackish-purple fruits throughout the winter. For best effect, it is generally recommended that chokeberries be planted in clusters for a natural, sprawling effect.

Sumacs are best known alongside roadways, but smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) makes for attractive massed plantings or “colonies” in home landscapes, like the chokeberries. Autumn foliar displays, similar to chokeberries, are replaced in winter by greenish-crimson fruit which can last into spring and are keen favorites of bluebirds, catbirds, robins, and mockingbirds.

These, of course, are only a sampling of the (mostly) native species which can be used to adorn a winter garden. There are also evergreens with variegated foliage, ornamental grasses featuring golden orange stems and graceful tufts of seedheads, and so much more. For an expanded tour of the subject turn to Rosemary Verey’s classic The Garden in Winter.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Dwarf Citrus Are Big On Flavor & Fragrance

As we move into the shorter, chillier gray days of autumn and winter, few things brighten and warm a room like the sweet, rich aroma of lemon blossoms or the glow of maturing oranges among glossy, green leaves. Thanks to the widespread cultivation of dwarf citrus trees, any gardener with a bright window can enjoy all the sensory pleasures of lemons, limes, oranges, and more, all year long.

Like most fruit tree cultivation, where a branch or scion of a desirable variety of tree is grafted onto a sturdy rootstock, dwarf citrus trees are grafts of a normal fruit-bearing branch onto dwarf rootstock, which keeps the plant at a manageable size for summer patios and year-round enjoyment in your solarium.

Because the fruiting branch is from a full-sized tree, the fruits which develop are also full-size, and full-flavored. However, that also means that like a dutiful orchard manager, you will have to prune your tree periodically to keep it within bounds. Normally, pinching off growing tips will help maintain an attractive shape, which is preferable to letting the plant send out tall shoots requiring severe pruning.

In addition, always remove shoots or “suckers” which tend to pop out from the dwarf rootstock. Look for a diagonal scar running the trunk’s circumference around about six inches above the soil surface. Snip off any shoots below the graft union as those pesky shoots will sap energy from the desired plant, and produce, if at all, inconsequential or tasteless fruits.

The majority of dwarf citrus used as container or houseplants tend to grow between four and six feet tall, and do best in pots ranging from 12 to 16 inches in diameter, although some popular cultivars can be grown in containers as small as eight inches.

In milder climates, dwarf trees can reach up to nine to 12 feet when grown in halved whiskey barrels or redwood tubs. Around here, though, citrus must be taken indoors before any danger of frost, and most of us would rather not lug a several hundred pound giant into a standard family room.

To keep your dwarf citrus in check, you will actually borrow some techniques from the world of bonsai. Root pruning is usually required every three years or so, which will control overall growth, while also allowing you to replenish soil and soil nutrients. Without root pruning, you will have to continually repot your specimen until it becomes a behemoth.

To begin, carefully remove the plant from its pot and use a sharp knife or pruning shears (or even a pruning saw) to trim off several inches of root from around the sides and bottom of the root ball. Use a standard container soil mix to replace and reposition the plant at its previous height in the pot.

Incidentally, root pruning is often traumatic for many novices, who are more comfortable with watering and feeding their plants. But fear not, eventually everyone gets used to it, and your tree will continue to thrive and flourish for many years, possibly even dozens or more.

Ongoing care for your dwarf citrus requires plenty of bright light and even exposure. Be sure to slowly rotate containers every week or so. After all, no one likes a lopsided lemon tree.

Dwarf citrus prefer evenly moist soil. Do not allow the soil to completely dry out, and do not waterlog the soil or allow the plant to sit in standing water. Many practitioners consider an inexpensive moisture meter indispensable and as important as a good pair of pruning shears. Plan to water a bit more frequently than you might with other houseplants, perhaps every three to four days, especially during warm, dry weather.

Note that citrus are heavy feeders, especially as frequent watering will leach out water-soluble nutrients like nitrogen. It is recommended to use a fertilizer with a ratios two to three times higher in nitrogen than potassium and phosphorous (an N-P-K of 3-1-1). Be sure to use a complete fertilizer periodically to replenish essential micronutrients.

Of course, the most important element in dwarf citrus cultivation is selecting a plant that will intoxicate you with its fragrance and tickle your taste buds.

The choices are delicious in their own right, ranging from typical naval oranges, tangerines, lemons, true limes and grapefruits, to a host of hybrids with special characteristics. For the most part, growers have selected varieties specifically for container and indoor use which will do well in relatively cool environments. You do not have to replicate Floridian heat to achieve sweet and luscious fruit.

Among oranges, some of the most readily available and favored are Trovita, with a thin skin, which is equally prized for juice or eating. Satsuma oranges, sometimes considered a mandarine, like Valencia, are smaller, with an easy-to-peel fruit and a truly intoxicating aroma from spring-borne blooms which last up to a full month.

And while oranges might be the first citrus variety you are considering, spare a thought for the lemon tree. While most citrus bloom in the spring and produce fruit the following winter (or later), lemons actually bloom throughout the year, providing four seasons of fragrance, and year-round fruit. The most popular varieties include Lisbon, Eureka and Meyer, the latter of which is thought to be a cross between a sour orange and a lemon, and is perhaps the most popular variety of all thanks to its somewhat sweeter, slightly tangerine flavor.

Limes aren’t only for margaritas and gin-and-tonics! In addition to favorites like Bearss Seedless, one of the most intriguing offerings is Kaffir (or Thai) lime. In addition to tangy juice and a zesty zest, the glossy, dark green leaves of this variety can be chopped or julienned and used much like lemon-grass in Thai and other related Indonesian cuisine.

And while grapefruit are available, why not explore the exciting world of hybrids. For example, consider the increasingly popular Minneola Tangelos, or Honeybell, a cross between tangerines and grapefruit. This juicy, bell-shaped find offers a bright, reddish-orange skin, easily peeled like its tangerine ancestor, and sharing both a tartness and intense tangerine flavor.

Clearly, while these varied citrus trees may be dwarf in size, the selection, flavors, fragrance, and rewards of raising them are truly enormous.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Friday, October 10, 2014

Great Gourds! Pumpkins & More

As you select and prepare to carve a pumpkin this Halloween, you should pause to reflect on the vast impact this humble gourd has had on our cultural history.

Pumpkins generally trace their origins to Central America, and collections of seed have been found in Mexico dating back several thousand years. Today, pumpkins are grown on every continent except Antarctica, and have found their way into our legends and traditions, kitchens, kitschy competitions, and media.

In literature, we should remember poor Ichabod Crane, knocked for a loss by a pumpkin lobbed by the headless horseman of Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” or even Cinderella’s enchanted carriage. Then, of course, there is the now classic book and television special “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” or the more edgy Pumpkin King, in Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas,” to say nothing of the early 90’s band, Smashing Pumpkins.

Culinary uses range from traditional pumpkin pie filling and pumpkin butter, to protein-rich seeds, which can be roasted and salted. The meat of the pumpkin can also be boiled or fried, diced or pureed, and has found its way as a filling for sweet Italian ravioli, soups, and numerous vegetarian dishes. Some microbreweries even produce a seasonal pumpkin ale.

Lately, florists have gotten into the act and use pumpkins as containers to fill with autumn-themed flowers as centerpieces or gift baskets.

If these notions have you seeing orange, then keep in mind that pumpkins come in a host of colors, from the red “Rouge D’Etant” to varieties in gold, buff, greenish-blue, and blue. New cultivars named “Casper” or “Baby-Boo” offer white pumpkins, which might be particularly ghoulish when carved.

Another important variety includes the giant pumpkins, perfect for competitions. Gourd gardeners are now approaching the 1,500 pound barrier on individual specimens. The 1,000 pound mark was broken in 1996 with the variety “Atlantic Giant,” and within the past several years a 1,458 pound specimen made its way into the Guinness Book of Records. There are also articles about a man who grew more than 2,700 pounds of pumpkin on a single vine.

Another somewhat less-dignified competition includes the popular “pumpkin flings” held each year, such as the “World Championship Punkin Chunkin” in Delaware. Approximately 30,000 people gather to watch medieval style catapults, 100 foot-long cannons, and four-story tall slingshots shoot ten-pound pumpkins up to 4,000 feet through the air.

However, pumpkins no doubt have their greatest appeal when artfully carved and illuminated as Jack-o’-Lanterns for Halloween. And while this tradition is relatively new, especially in the New World, its origins extend back thousands of years into the misty past.

We begin with Celts celebrating the “Feast of Samhain” on November 1. The feast takes its name from the Gaelic Samhraidhreadh, meaning summer’s end, and is a celebration of the final harvest, which featured bonfires, food, dancing, and costumes. It is also an important mystical time, the start of a new year, when the transition between seasons opens a doorway into the realm of spirits.

Samhain is also identified as a godlike individual, sometimes defined as a “lord of the dead.” This mythic figure is depicted carrying a lantern or spectral fire, with which he guides lost and roaming spirits to the supernatural realm. His appearance is also associated with Will-o’-the-Wisp, or Welsh “Corpse Candles,” ghostly flames which move over bogs and through cemeteries.

The Feast of Samhain began its “conversion” to Halloween in 844, when Pope Gregory transferred the Christian feast for “All Saints” or “All Hallows” (meaning “holy”) from May 13 to November 1, to coincide with the Celtic “pagan” festival.

As centuries passed and traditions fused, the figure of Samhain guiding spirits with a spectral light was seemingly recast by Irish storytellers as a Christianized Jack-o’-Lantern. Incidentally, “jack” is no more than a term for any common man, and therefore Jack-o’-Lantern simply means “man with a lantern.”

The tragic legend of Jack holds that he was an inveterate prankster whose cunning ran afoul of the devil himself. Upon his death Jack finds that he is barred from heaven for never having performed an unselfish act, and similarly banned from hell. Doomed to a twilight existence between worlds, Jack carves a turnip and creates a lantern to guide his way, lighting it with an infernal ember coaxed from the devil.

The tradition of carving lanterns out of turnips and lighting them with embers or oil continued for centuries among Irish households. Moreover, like the medieval practice of carving gargoyles on cathedrals to scare off malevolent forces, the Irish carved ghastly visages into their turnips to ward off those evil spirits who roamed the countryside.

In time, of course, Irish immigrants brought their turnip carving to the new world, where they happily discovered a much larger gourd suitable for carving. And yet, one has to wonder what the ancient Celts and their Druid priests might have made of “punkin chunkin.” We will have to ask them when they show up again on the next Samhain.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser