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Pumpkins have been cooked, eaten and kept as ornaments for thousands of years—long before the Irish brought their tradition of 'All Hollows Eve' to America and started using pumpkins to keep Jack and other restless spirits at bay on the last night of October.

Pumpkin flower and patch.
Pumpkin varieties including Big Autumn, Cinderella, and others.

Pumpkins are members of the Cucurbita family, as are squash, cucumbers, gherkins, and melons. One of the earliest cultivated plants, the pumpkin has been grown in the Americas for several thousand years.

Geneticists have used archaeological evidence—tiny plant remains called phytoliths—from excavations in Central America to study how some of the world's 800 species of cucurbits were domesticated.

With the help of genetic markers from wild and domesticated plants, the researchers identified a region in northeastern Mexico where farmers may have first domesticated the wild ancestors of Cucurbita pepo, the species considered to be the 'true' pumpkin.

This fall, scientists from various fields—including biotechnology, entomology, virology, and genetics—are meeting to discuss cucurbits. The conference "Cucurbitaceae 2002" will be held December 8-12, 2002 in Naples, Florida, USA.

Birgit Reinert

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Sanjur, O.I. et al. Phylogenetic relationships among domesticated and wild species of Cucurbita (Cucurbitaceae) inferred from a mitochondrial gene: Implications for crop plant evolution and areas of origin. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 99, 535-540 (January 8, 2002).

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