Any way you cut it, the pumpkin has long been an American favorite. Native American tribes cultivated it centuries ago. The big orange gourd has become a staple of the October 31st Halloween celebration, hollowed out and carved with a scary face or intricate design. And then there's pumpkin pie… pumpkin bread… pumpkin cookies…
In recent years, gardeners tinkering with pumpkin genetics have developed larger and larger varieties, leading to another use for pumpkins: competitions.
When Chris Sabol sprouted a giant pumpkin seed last spring, this longtime gardener named the vine Veronica, in honor of her grandmother. "The name also means, 'she who brings victory,'" she explains, adding that she decided to name the pumpkin Victoria because that also means 'victorious woman.'
Throughout the summer, Sabol, her husband and their 5-year old daughter cared for Veronica the Vine along with the pumpkin, Victoria. Under their loving attention, Victoria grew . . . and grew. Finally, the beautiful orange giantess is ready for the local garden store competition. Sabol watched excitedly as her whole neighborhood helped move Victoria onto a waiting truck. "We just cut her off the vine," she comments. "She's free. Free and clear now. I'm pretty confident she's somewhere between 650 and 700 pounds." That's about 300 kilos, big enough that Victoria might win the local contest.
Win or lose at the competition, Victoria had already won over the neighborhood. "It bonds [us] together," one woman explains. "Even the mailman comes by and visits her every day."
To get Victoria out of the garden and off to the contest, eight men, staggering under her weight, start moving the pumpkin toward the pickup truck. Victoria's safety is so important, one youngster covers his face with his hands, afraid to watch. "I worry that it'll drop!" he says. But finally, Sabol, her family and friends strap Victoria safely on the truck.
With the whole neighborhood in a motorcade, they drive to a garden store named The Flower Bin. Victoria's size draws plenty of attention, with comments like "Fabulous!" and "Unbelievable!" as she passes.
As for why these pumpkins are so well-loved, one expert says that it's just fun to see something so enormous. Besides, this native American fruit has always been a favorite. "I like pumpkins 'cause I liked Halloween as a kid," offers Joe Scherber. "That's a pleasant time of year for any kid." The Denver-area dentist has been growing giant pumpkins for over 10 years. In 2000, he grew the second largest pumpkin in the world -- over 450 kilos. These days, he says, that size is getting a bit more common. "There's probably 300 or 400 real serious growers and a ton of others who dabble in it."
Scherber says that giant pumpkins grow best where summer days offer lots of sun. But this vine crop, which originated in Central America, grows well in many regions. The squash-like fruit is mildly sweet. Usually sold already cooked, in cans, it's used in pies, breads and soup. It's high in Vitamins A and C, along with the minerals potassium and zinc, and has lots of fiber. Pumpkins also provide low cost livestock feed. In fact, Scherber says that's why the first giant ones were developed.
This year's world record pumpkin is likely to be well over 680 kilos. But Scherber says, any pumpkin over 225 kilos is likely to snap people's heads around. "People just get the biggest kick out of seeing these things. There's nothing that stops traffic like a big pumpkin," he observes.
Back at the Flower Bin in Longmont, the heaviest pumpkin weighs 300 kilos and it's Victoria! Chris Sabol's neighbors crown her with a sparkly tiara and drape her shoulders with a homemade banner that reads 'Pumpkin Queen.' "I can't believe my neighbors did this for me," she says, "and the crown . . . okay, this is a little over the top!"
With her daughter and husband at her side, Sabol says this is only the beginning. "I'm thrilled. Very excited. We're going to have a big party at our house today, and it's just going to be a lot of fun. If I hadn't won, that would have been fine, too, but it's just great. Just great."
Victoria the pumpkin will lead this year's Halloween parade in Longmont, and be displayed at the local elementary school, until she goes the way of all pumpkins: carved into a Jack O' Lantern, turned into compost, or baked into many pies.