The Lowcountry may not have the sudden snap in the air that heralds the arrival of autumn, but a sure sign of the changing season is the proliferation of pumpkin patches. These iconic squashes were being cultivated centuries ago by Native Americans as an important diet staple, particularly by Cherokee in the Upstate, who shared them with European settlers in and around today's Pickens County. They grew so prolifically there along the Oolenoy River that (so the story goes) an early 19th-century settler named the
new town in the pumpkin's honor, making the autumn Pumpkintown's time in the botanical spotlight.
Pumpkins fell out of favor for a time in the Lowcountry, though, as soil depleted by cotton plantations made them harder to grow. By the early twentieth century, when truck farming became more common, the pumpkin began a slow return to Lowcountry fields; and by the latter half of the century, our own Sidi Limehouse staged somewhat of a pumpkin renaissance. "I saw the need to have a decent edible pumpkin," he once told the Johns Island Conservancy. "You can go to most places and they have pumpkin pie and it's out of a damn can, and it ain't pumpkin, it's just squash with with sugar in it." Limehouse worked with Clemson's agricultural station to develop a pumpkin suited to the Lowcountry's sandy, slightly salty soil, literally laying the ground for the proliferation of pumpkin patches that are now a common feature of our coastal autumn.
Pumpkins may all look pretty similar, but there are a number of varieties promoted by pumpkin aficionados. There are Mammoth Golds, Ghost Riders, Howdens and Small Sugars; but all have woody stems, stringy flesh, and seeds that can be cleaned, dried and roasted. Pumpkins are a great source of Vitamin A, and the seeds are a good source of protein and fat.
At the pumpkin patch, look for pumpkins that are uniformly firm and free of cracks or splits. If a gently pressed fingernail easily penetrates the skin, it's a sign the pumpkin was harvested too early. And if you're picking your own, look for ones with bright green stems, and when cutting from the plant, leave at least an inch of the stem. Most of all, enjoy this heritage vegetable, at the center of generations of Lowcountry harvest feasts.