As you might know, I don’t write about indigenous North Americans’ use of plants on this blog. That is not my history to tell. When I do write about the history of a new world plant, I first look at what was going on in the old world with alternate species and reason out how the new plant worked its way into that system. Because that’s the system I know.
Most frequently what I have seen is that colonists harvested plants that looked like produce that was used back home and used “old world” receipts to cook with them and use them in medicine. Then explorers and sailors wrote home about the new plant, it became trendy in Europe, and all of a sudden it was everywhere. Sound familiar?
You might have been told by other sources that colonists had no knowledge of medicinal plants, that’s just not the case. There is documentation of at least one herbal being aboard the Mayflower, and letters housed in museums in which old world doctors were sending medicinal receipts from Gerard’s herbal to the governor of Connecticut as early as 1643.[i]
In fact, due to the efforts of physicians TImothy Bright and Culpeper in 17th century, the English especially were convinced that English plants were best for English bodies, and they made sure that the seeds they carried to the New World, also included seeds necessary to establish “physic gardens.”
You might also wonder why this even matters to me?
It matters because portraying the early colonists as not having folk knowledge or medicinal skills, undermines the intelligence and agency of my female ancestors. These were knowledgeable, capable women who knew how to birth children and care for their families, often using receipt books their mothers gave to them, with seeds tucked in the pages, before they headed off to the new world.
Pumpkins (Cucurbita pepo L.) as we recognize them today are a new world plant. Archaeologists believe that this species originated as toxic, bitter gourds bearing little resemblance to modern day pumpkins. They grew on the grazing pastures of mastodon and seeds present in their dung indicate these gourds were a primary food source.[ii]
Famine and scarcity caused by the decline of the megafauna likely led to the domestication of the plant. As far as researchers know this first started over 9000 years ago[iii] when people living in the Valley of Oaxaca in Mexico began to eat the flesh of the gourds, saving the seeds of the biggest and most tasty for replanting. This went on for thousands of years resulting in our modern pumpkin. While there is no doubt that indigenous North and South Americans had many ingenious uses for these pumpkins and seeds, that is not the focus of my historical research.
What is certain is that the most common uses of the pumpkin today, mainly pies and savory soups are European. That’s because Europeans had winter squashes they were already cooking with, although in the early Middle Ages they called them gourds. When pumpkin came along they just used it like any other gourd.
One variety was Lagenaria siceraria (bottle gourd). This plant originated in Africa, but seems to have spread across the globe with the earliest waves of human migration. It was already established as far as Peru and Thailand before 6000 BCE. It has a white flesh that they often “tinged with saffron” to make it yellow. Another interesting thing I have read about this plant is that Roman farmers insisted that taking seeds from the stylar end would produce rounder fruit suitable for making vessels while seeds from the peduncle end longer fruits for culinary use.
The immature and mature fruits of Luffa acutangula (ridged gourd) and Trichosanthes cucumerina (snake gourd) were also used for food.[iv] Trichosanthes is the patola, written about in the Rig Veda. It’s possible you have heard the snake gourd is a South American plant but the seeds have been discovered in sites dating back to the Miocene and Pliocene in France, Germany, Italy and Poland.[v]
Most of the early recipes for gourd were savory, but that is also typical. Keep in mind that sugar was not widely available until after the Venetians discovered that it grew better in the Caribbean than it did in Sicily. Only the wealthiest of the wealthy could obtain it during the 12th and 13th centuries. In Le Managier de Paris published in 1393, there is a recipe for fried gourd which I have made for SCA events with several kinds of winter squash including pumpkin and it is quite tasty.
Let the rind be peeled. for that is the best: and always if you want the insides, let the seed be removed, though it is said the rind is worth more, then cut up the rind in pieces, then parboil, then chop lengthways, then put to cook in beef fat: almost at the end yellow it with saffron.
This recipe from The Anonymous Tuscan Cookbook circa 1400 CE is more typical of the pottages and puddings that were made at that time.
Another preparation. Also take young gourds, and wash and press them thoroughly, with cooked eggs, and with onions, and cheese minced very thoroughly, and throw them in boiling water, with pepper and with saffron, and enough oil, and salt. And from this you can make ravioli with mixed minced meats, and also pies.
This recipe for a tart filling from the Libro di cucina/ Libro per cuoco an Italian manuscript from the late 14th/early 15th century is starting to sound more like our modern pumpkin pie.
Meat of the apples good and perfect. Take the apples, and peel and cut in quarters and let them boil; when they are enough cooked pour away the water, then put in the fat of the meat that you choose, and do in this way gourds also, and put good sweet spices and beaten eggs how it seems to you.
Gourds were also used medicinally. Pepon was the name given to sun-ripened cucurbits by the Romans. Paulus Aegineta wrote of the medicinal use of these gourds in his Medical Compendium written in 600 CE. Gourds were recommended as a remedy that was cooling, and moistening without astringency, along with henbane, endive and horned poppy.[vi]
In a recipe in the 13th century Andalusian cookbook the author advises the reader that a recipe containing the juice of roasted gourds and other cooling herbs and foods ” is given to feverish people as a food and takes the place of medicine.”
Another squash, the zucca marina di Chioggia more closely resembles what we think of as pumpkin because of its bright orange flesh. Again this one gets a little confusing because the plant is supposedly a South American native, but zucca is supposedly the gourd used in the Libro de Arte Coquinaria by Italian chef Martino da Como in 1465.[vii] So those numbers don’t quite jive. It’s possible that the word zucca just means winter squash, or that there was another variety of orange-fleshed squash obtained along the spice route.
Despite that confusion, da Como’s zucca, tart, is generally credited with being the predecessor to our modern pumpkin pie because it has more sugar. If you are interested in growing these for comparison Baker’s Creek Heirloom Seed Company sells the seeds.
Pumpkins were some of the first new world produce to be introduced to Europe judging by the fact that an early variety of c. pepo was painted on Queen Anne de Bretagne’s illustrated prayer book around 1503-1508. Large sun ripened pepons of many varieties, including pumpkin and the zuccha marina di chiogga , were painted on the ceiling of Villa Farnesina between 1515 and 1518.[viii]
It wasn’t long before the pumpkin was being grown in Europe and used in culinary recipes like all the other gourds. The Libre del Coch published in Spain in 1520 shares the following recipe:
ANOTHER ALMOND DISH FOR INVALIDS WHO HAVE GREAT HEAT AND GREAT BURNING. Cook a very tender gourd with water and salt until it is almost cooked; and then press it between two chopping blocks or silver plates, until the water comes out of them; and empty out the water in which they were cooked, and return them to the pot, and cast almond milk on them, little by little; and stir it constantly with a stick or spoon until the gourd is thick and quite mushy; and cast upon it a half ounce of sugar, stirring constantly; and cast on it a little rosewater to comfort the heart.
European physicians working with this new species quickly assessed where the it fit into their practice of humoral medicine. The energetic and medicinal properties of pumpkins were included in the many herbals that cropped at the end of the 1500’s.
Pumpkin seeds were mentioned as one of the “cold seeds” along with melon, cucumber, and watermelon by the Spanish missionary/physicians who wrote the Badanius manuscripts and the Florentine Codex. [ix]
In Lyte’s translation of Cruydenboeck (1554), he called all gourds pepones and mentioned the alternate name pompions for pumpkin, because he was not translating from Dutch but French and that was the name the French were using. That name actually hung on in England for quite awhile.
According to Lyte Doedens classified the flesh as “colde and moyste” when cooked and recommended pounding strips of the flesh to apply to inflamed eyes. He also suggested pounding the seeds with barley meal and the juice of the plant and using this preparation to fade spots on the skin.
(Incidentally this English translation of Doedens is the herbal that Elder Brewster brought with him on the Mayflower. The Mayflower’s physician, Dr. Samuel Fuller seemed to be more a fan of Gerard. That was fairly typical at that time because Gerard served as a ship’s physician and was thought to be an authority on the subject.)
In 1573, Partridge included milion seeds (and the other cold seeds mentioned above) in a formula meant to “restore strength in theme that are brought low with long sicknesse”.[x]
In 1577, Thomas Hill wrote that the vegetable “profit the flegmatic and cholerick person” and had the ability to “clenseth the skinne, causeth Urine, purgeth the loynes, Kidneyes, and bladder, heale ulcers and cease speedy boyling.”[xi]
In 1580, a physician Thomas Newton wrote that the pepon or million was “colde and moist in the second degree “useful for provoking urine and breaking stones.[xii]
In 1597, physician John Gerard wrote about pumpkins in his herbal under the heading “Of Melons, or Pompions” later mentioning an English name “Millions”[xiii] His uses generally agreed with older texts saying the seed “is good for those that are troubled with the stone of the kidneies. In addition, he suggested a pottage of the flesh simmered in milk and served with butter as a dish particularly beneficial to those with a “hot stomacke” and “inward parts inflamed”.[xiv]
I could keep going but I like to cut things off just before 17th century and the failed Jamestown settlement experiment in 1607, so that we get a clear view of what was going on in European medicine as we moved away from the period of the Columbian exchange and into the age of colonization. At this point in history there had been no colonists who might have interacted with the indigenous peoples long enough to observe their medicinal practices, so we get a good sense of how Europeans viewed the new plant.
[i] Gifford, George. “Botanic Remedies in Colonial Massachusetts, 1620–1820.” In Medicine in Colonial Massachusetts. Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1978. https://www.colonialsociety.org/node/1215. [ii] Kistler L, Newsom LA, Ryan TM, Clarke AC, Smith BD, Perry GH. Gourds and squashes (Cucurbita spp.) adapted to megafaunal extinction and ecological anachronism through domestication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2015;112(49):15107–15112. [iii] Decker, Dana. “Origins, Evolution and Systematics of Cucurbita Pepo (Curbitaceae).” Economic Botany 42, no. 1 (1988): 4–15. [iv] 1. Janick J, Paris HS, Parrish DC. The Cucurbits of Mediterranean Antiquity: Identification of Taxa from Ancient Images and Descriptions. Annals of Botany. 2007;100(7):1441–1457. [v] Boer, Hugo J. de, Hanno Schaefer, Mats Thulin, and Susanne S. Renner. “Evolution and Loss of Long-Fringed Petals: A Case Study Using a Dated Phylogeny of the Snake Gourds, Trichosanthes (Cucurbitaceae).” BMC Evolutionary Biology 12, no. 1 (July 3, 2012): 108. [vi] Aegineta, Paulus. Medical Compendium in Seven Books. Translated by Adams, Francis. 1847 Translation. Vol. II. London, England: Sydenham Soc., 600. pp 68. [vii] Rossi, Martino de. The Art of Cooking: The First Modern Cookery Book. Edited by Luigi Ballerini. Translated by Jeremy Parzen. 2005 Translation. Berkeley. CA: University of California Press, 1465. pp. 68. [viii] Janick, Jules, and Harry S. Paris. “The Cucurbit Images (1515–1518) of the Villa Farnesina, Rome.” Annals of Botany 97, no. 2 (February 2006): 165–76. [ix] Orta, Garcia de. Colloquies on the Simples & Drugs of India. Translated by Markham, Clements. 1913 Translation. London, England: Henry Sotheran and Co., 1563. 303. [x] Partridge, John, fl. The Treasurie of Commodious Conceits, & Hidden Secrets ... Imprinted at London: By Richarde Iones, 1573., 1573. [xi] Hill, Thomas. The Gardener’s Labyrinth. Translated by Mabey, Richard. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1577. [xii] Newton, Thomas, Approoved Medicines and Cordiall Receiptes with the Natures, Qualities, and Operations of Sundry Samples. Very Commodious and Expedient for All That Are Studious of Such Knowledge. Imprinted at London: In Fleete-streete by Thomas Marshe, 1580., 1580. [xiii] Gerard, John. The Herball Or Generall Historie of Plantes. London, England: Norton, John, 1597. pp 775. [xiv] Gerard, 774.