October 20, 2013

Jack O'Lanterns have long history


When Jack died, in an ensuing dispute over his soul, the Devil took coal from the fires of hell and threw it at Jack, who placed it inside a turnip that he’d been eating to create a lantern that he would use to light his way as he wandered around purgatory.

Also, Irish villagers used to fear that ghosts might leave their graves on Halloween to return to their previous homes. Believing that the image of a damned soul would keep those spirits away, they created their own Lack O’ Lanterns, hollowing out turnips or beets, painting faces on or carving faces into them, and then placing lit candles inside them.

When the Irish came to the United States during the potato famine, they found that turnips were hard to come by but pumpkins were plentiful and easy to carve, so they became the new Jack O’ Lanterns.

In recent years, growing giant Jack O’ Lantern pumpkins has become the rage. But, can they be grown around here? Having the right seed makes most anything possible, although environment will affect the outcome.

Locally, Big Max and Mammoth Gold seem to be the two most popular garden varieties, although Prizewinner hybrid seed is reputed to produce Jack O’ Lantern pumpkins that are the most uniform in size, shape and color. If your goal is to grow the largest pumpkin in the world, you will want to grow the Atlantic Giant hybrid variety. Since 1979, every world champion pumpkin grown has been either directly or indirectly from Howard Dill’s patented Atlantic Giant hybrid seed.

Currently, the reigning world heavyweight champion is Ron Wallace from Greene, R.I. His colossal cucurbit claimed the world pumpkin-growing record for him at the Topsfield Fair in Topsfield, Mass., on Sept. 28, 2012, when his elephantine entry weighed in at 2,009 pounds, the first and, to date, the only time that anyone has grown a pumpkin weighing more than a ton.

Richard L. Gast, Extension program educator II, Horticulture, Natural Resources, Energy; agriculture programs assistant, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County, 355 West Main St., Suite 150, Malone, 12953. Call 483-7403, fax 483-6214 or email


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