Question: I’m seeing different kinds of pumpkins that I have never seen before at markets. Where are all these new kinds coming from?
Answer: When many people think of pumpkins, they only think of “jacks” (as growers sometimes call them), the bright orange, round pumpkins grown mainly for jack-o’-lanterns, but there are so many more. In fact, the pumpkins (as well as winter squashes) you are seeing are probably not new at all but are old varieties that growers and consumers have rediscovered. There has been a renaissance of interest in these varieties over the past few decades. The colors can range from deep green to peach, slate blue, white, tan or deep orange red, and the forms can be just as varied.
Celebrate the 50th anniversary of “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” by visiting a Georgia farm or farmers market and buying one or more of these different pumpkins. And they’re not just good for decorating; they can also be used for pies, roasting, soups or numerous other ways.
Q: What can I use pumpkins for besides pies?
A: Pumpkin cheesecake, ice cream, soups, stews, roast pumpkin and feta risotto, cakes, bars, pancakes, cookies and breads are a few of your options. How about a pumpkin dip made by combining pureed pumpkin with softened cream cheese, confectioner’s sugar, cinnamon and ginger? You can serve it with ginger snaps. Pumpkin ice cream can be slightly thawed and spooned into a graham cracker crust and then re-frozen for an ice cream pie.
Don’t think of pumpkin dishes as just sweet, however. Many savory dishes such as Thai pumpkin soup or other pumpkin soups containing chicken broth, onions and herbs will warm your autumn days and nights. Ever thought of pumpkin chicken chili? These are just a few ideas. Check your cookbooks and online recipe sources that you trust for detailed instructions. Remember, too, that small pumpkins can be scooped out to make serving dishes for soups, stews and dips.
Q: A neighbor has a cactus on his porch that has just bloomed with a hairy, buff flower with maroon lines that looks like a giant starfish. The stems are velvety and four-sided. The flower smells bad if you get close. We do not know its name. Do you have any idea?
Answer: It is probably giant stapelia (Stapelia gigantea). It is not a cactus but is a succulent from southern Africa. The plant usually blooms in late summer or fall. The flowers are exotic in appearance, and unusual (by houseplant standards, at least) in how they lure pollinators. The flowers smell like a dead mouse or another dead animal if you stick your nose in one. The smell would be worse if indoors without ventilation. The smell attracts flies to pollinate the flowers. This may sound off-putting, but they are attractive, sculptural plants, and the blooms are beautiful and fascinating.
Giant stapelia is not winter hardy. It likes well-drained soil. Use a commercial cactus soil mix or a regular potting soil mixed with one-fourth perlite or sharp sand. Let it dry out between waterings from spring through fall. In winter, keep the watering to a minimum or it will rot. It likes a sunny window while indoors. It can turn from green to brownish green if it gets too much intense sun outdoors, so protect it from the midday sun and move it to a shadier spot if it begins to turn brown.
Giant stapelia is not commonly sold except by specialty houseplant dealers but is often passed along from gardener to gardener. Do not let the smell cause you to turn away from considering it. The plants don’t always bloom, and when they do they are usually outdoors or can be placed outdoors. And the plant often generates a lot of interest among children, who think it is cool.
Q: I saw a tree in Augusta I could not identify but would like to have in my yard. It had leaves like a sweetgum but the tree itself was very narrow. It was attractive and beginning to show fall color similar to sweetgums. Do you know what it could be?
A: It sounds like Slender Silhouette, a fastigiate variety of sweetgum. It is has a tightly columnar form. Sources report it can reach 35 to 60 feet tall but only four to eight feet wide and that it does not produce as many gumballs as a typical sweetgum but has the same beautiful fall foliage.
Fastigiate trees are ones that are much narrower than the normal form of their species. They may be chosen for tight spaces that would not accommodate a wider tree or to create a design effect. Besides the sweetgum you saw, European hornbeam, English oak, tulip poplar, Mediterranean or Italian cypress, junipers, black locust, elms and many other trees have fastigiate forms.
Q: I heard that canned pumpkin may not be actual pumpkin but a winter squash. Is this true?
A: The differences between what we refer to as winter squashes and pumpkins are often botanical or cosmetic rather than culinary. For example, types of winter squash such as butternut squash are often used by cooks to make “pumpkin” pie because the squash may be more readily available, of a more manageable size and easier to prepare. Also, what people refer to as pumpkins may even be different species within the genus Cucurbita.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, canned pumpkin has been packed from pumpkin or certain varieties of firm-shelled, golden-fleshed, sweet squash or mixtures of these for many years. They are sometimes mixed to obtain the consistency most acceptable to users.
To quote directly from the agency’s website, “Since l938, we have consistently advised canners that we would not initiate regulatory action solely because of their using the designation ‘pumpkin’ or ‘canned pumpkin’ on labels for articles prepared from golden-fleshed, sweet squash, or mixtures of such squash with field pumpkins. In the absence of any evidence that this designation misleads or deceives consumers we see no reason to change this policy.”
Q: I grow a lot of herbs. Someone suggested I buy a mezzaluna to help me chop them for pesto and cooking. I have never seen or used a mezzaluna before. Can you give me more information?
A: A mezzaluna (“half moon” in Italian) is a knife with a curved blade that is often used for chopping herbs. Most have two handles which enable the user to rock the blade back and forth and easily chop herbs and possibly other items. Some may only have one handle and may come with a specialized scooped cutting board.
There is not a definitive answer about the usefulness of mezzalunas. They have good points and bad points; supporters and detractors. While professional chefs with advanced chopping skills may prefer a multipurpose knife, other cooks, especially those who are not chopping herbs daily, say they like and appreciate the mezzaluna. Mezzalunas have been around for many, many years and continue to be used and sold, so they are obviously useful to someone.
Here are some advantages: They may be more comfortable to use if you have trouble holding a knife and performing repetitive chopping motions for reasons such as arthritis. This can be especially true if doing a large amount of chopping. They may be safer for a young person to use while assisting a parent since their hands are holding the handles rather than being next to the blade. There may be less of a need for gloves when cutting foods that can irritate the skin such as hot peppers.
Some disadvantages: They are mainly used for chopping herbs and spices, and therefore not a true multiuse tool. They can be difficult to store. (Hanging them on the wall or on a magnetic bar is one way to overcome the lack of space in your utensils drawer.) They may not fit into the dishwasher and can be dangerous if placed in there with the blade up. The types with two blades can be dangerous and difficult to clean, and large leaves sometimes get stuck between the blades.
You may want to read some of the online reviews of the various kinds of mezzalunas as well as visiting a kitchen supply store to help you determine if a mezzaluna will be beneficial to you.
Q: I want to plant blue mist flower but heard it is an aggressive spreader. Is that true?
A: Blue mist flower (Conoclinium coelestinum), also known as wild ageratum and hardy ageratum, can be an aggressive spreader, We have found it generally easy to control. It pulls up very easily if it spreads or sows itself where it is not wanted. Other gardeners have claimed otherwise, but we have not found it terribly problematic, especially if planted in the right space with the right companions.
Because it is so vigorous, you may consider planting it in a meadow garden or with other perennial plants of equal vigor and constitution. Good companions for it are obedient plant, cut-leaf coneflower, monarda, various mountain mints (Pycanthemum spp.), most goldenrods, common milkweed, swamp sunflower and anise-scented salvia. Planting things with similar growth habits next to each other is generally a good idea. Aggressive spreaders can compete without overwhelming each other and may help keep each other in check.
The hardiness and spreading nature of blue mist flower make it a good choice for contained areas such as sidewalk planting strips, islands in parking lots and planters. Blue mist flower also works well in mixed plantings of perennials and shrubs such as Virginia sweetspire, American beautyberry and glossy abelia.
Q: I have not been able to pick up all the pears that have dropped off my Kieffer pear tree. I am seeing numerous butterflies feeding on the fruit. Is this unusual?
A: Numerous butterfly species will feed on the juice of ripe and fermenting fruit and will pass over flowers to get to it. Among the species that do this are the red-spotted purple, tawny emperor, hackberry emperor, viceroy and question mark butterflies. Pears, apples and muscadines are frequently visited.
At times the fermenting fruit can have an intoxicating effect on the butterflies and make them easy to catch. A newsworthy example of this occurred when the massive storm that hit Great Britain in October 1987 destroyed a butterfly house and liberated many tropical butterflies. Because it was fall and there were lots of ripe apples on the ground, schoolchildren easily caught and returned some of the butterflies that were imbibing on the fermenting apples.
Be careful as you watch or try to catch the feeding butterflies, however, because the fruit will also attract hornets and yellow jackets.
If you have questions about services or products regulated by the Georgia Department of Agriculture, write Arty Schronce (firstname.lastname@example.org) or visit the department’s website at www.agr.georgia.gov.