It’s pumpkin time – and squash, too!

It seems like these orange, green, yellow and black skinned orbs are everywhere. They’re piled high at supermarkets and farmers’ markets, they’re a flavor in your latte and hummus, they’ve taken control of recipe lists and they’re on doorsteps dressed as jack o’ lanterns.

Pumpkins and squash may not share the same limelight as dates, pomegranates and oranges possess in Israel, but these nutrient-packed crops boast a long and interesting history.

Israel, of course, is one of the world’s top agriculture producers. And thanks to its horticulturists and agronomists, this little country has developed dozens of new varieties of fruits and vegetables for the global population. Among these better tasting, longer-shelf life, more nutritious produce options are pumpkins and squash.

With autumn underway –  and Halloween and Thanksgiving around the corner – there’s no better time than to brush up on your pumpkin trivia.

Here are 5 things you may not have known about pumpkins … from Israel:

1. Pumpkins are a fruit-vegetable

Pumpkins are a variety of winter squash that belongs to the Cucurbitaceae (cucurbits) family. Melon, watermelon, and cucumber also fall into this crop category.

“The pumpkin is a fruit-vegetable,” Harry Paris, an Israeli-American senior scientist of genetics and breeding of cucurbits, tells NoCamels.

Technically, pumpkins are fruit. They’ve got seeds. But they’re often eaten in savory dishes, so people refer to them as vegetables.

“The pumpkin is a round fruit that’s edible; the gourd is a fruit that is not edible, and the squash is a non-round fruit that is edible,” says Paris.

Actually just about every part of the pumpkin is edible, including the seeds, fleshy shell, the leaves and the flowers. Pumpkins are superfood and are high in iron, packed with vitamins and minerals, and are considered natural antioxidants.

2. Israeli pumpkins are better looking and better tasting

For 45 years, Paris bred varieties of squash and pumpkins with an emphasis on improved fruit appearance, nutritional value, and flavor. A local Hebrew newspaper even dubbed him, “Mr. Pumpkin.”

“When I came to Israel, my dream was to improve vegetables,” says Paris, who is originally from the US.

He created the Orangetti spaghetti squash, which boasts an intense orange color. Orangetti is slightly sweet and has 15 times the carotenoid content of regular spaghetti squash, according to OriGene Seeds, an Israeli seed company active in research, plant breeding, seed production and processing of hybrid vegetable varieties. Orangetti hit the market in 1986.

Orangetti, via the OriGene website.

Orangetti, via the OriGene website.

Paris also developed the Table Sugar dark green acorn squash, known for its delicious roasted chestnut flavor. OriGene Seeds commercialized this squash, which was developed at the Volcani Agriculture Institute in central Israel.

“I get the most pleasure from the Table Sugar squash. From the time I had the idea to finally getting it out on the market, it took 28 years,” says Paris. He changed the skin from dark green to black green and would only find out later, through research, that this alteration not only made it “more attractive” but kept it resistant to powdery mildew – a fungal disease that affects a wide range of plants.

Moreover, it was the black skin that would give the Table Sugar variety its famous roasted chestnut flavor. Table Sugar has been on the market since 2007, and it remains one of the most popular squash varieties in the US. The sweet minipum is another popular Israeli pumpkin on the global market.

Table Sugar squash. Via the OriGene website

Table Sugar squash. Via the OriGene website

3. Israeli pumpkins boast high-yield seeds

You don’t need to come to Israel to taste locally developed pumpkins and squash. Thanks to the country’s seed technology companies, Israeli-created pumpkins are grown the world over.
The Global Vegetable Seeds Market was worth $8.84 billion in 2017, according to an October 2018 market report.

OriGene, and similar Israeli operations like Seeds Technologies and Hazera Seeds, as well as other local Israeli seed technology companies have mastered disease-free techniques and are giving produce grown elsewhere better shelf life. Local companies export seeds to over 30 countries.

The non-profit Fair Planet distributes high-quality seeds to help Ethiopia fight hunger.

4. Acorn squash seeks name

The Table Sugar pumpkin first went to market without a name. In fact, local chef Nir Zook was given a basket full of these acorn squash and upon tasting them, declared that they should be called, dla’at armonim (translation: chestnut squash).

The Table Sugar hybrid acorn squash has an orange-yellow fruit flesh, and are sweeter than other acorn squash varieties. The roasted-chestnut flavor comes from the genetic material and black skin of this hybrid acorn squash.

5. Israeli pumpkins have Byzantine roots

Pretty much everyone can lay claim to a piece of curcurbit history as these fruits are grown on every continent save for Antartica. In Israel, archaeologists found 23 mosaics dating from 350–600 CE comprising depictions of cucurbits. Morevoer, the cucurbit fruits in the mosaics show a wide variety of cultivars including melons, gourds, pumpkins and squash.

“The mosaics of Israel contain what are probably the oldest depictions of Luffa aegyptiaca (sponge gourds) in Mediterranean lands. Sponge gourds are depicted often, in 11 of the mosaics at eight localities, and the images include both mature fruits, which are useful for cleaning and washing, and immature fruits, which are edible,” according to a 2014 report published in Annals of Botany.

Many mosaics found in Israel depict produce. The authors of this study set out to show that traditional crops of the Land of Israel go beyond the oft-praised grapes, pomegranates, figs and citrons.

“Of the 134 Israeli mosaics containing images of agricultural plants or plant parts, 17 % contain one or more images of cucurbits. To our knowledge, both this frequency as well as the variety of cucurbit portrayals in Byzantine mosaics from Israel far exceed those produced in any other province of the Roman and Byzantine Empires, be they in the form of mosaics, paintings or sculpture. Evidently, cucurbits were popular in Israel, which has a warm, sunny climate well suited for their production,” wrote the authors.

Viva Sarah Press is a journalist and speaker. She writes and talks about the creativity and innovation taking place in Israel and beyond.