By Ralph E. Mitchell
Summer vegetable gardening is not for everybody as the pest pressure, heat and humidity are at their peak. Most of our fall/early winter vegetables cannot take the heat, but others like okra, southern peas, sweet potatoes and hot peppers thrive in this environment. One other summer vegetable that does well is the tropical pumpkin. Not to be confused with our classic fall pumpkin, these pumpkins or calabazas are built to take a tropical climate and produce a delicious vegetable.
Calabaza or Cuban pumpkin is botanically known as Cucurbita moschata. It is a tropical vining pumpkin grown in the Caribbean, Latin America and parts of the US including Florida and Puerto Rico. The fruit size, shape and color is very variable, but most tend to be from five to twelve pounds, and round and flattened in shape. The color can range from green and white striped to a beige/cream-color. The interior flesh is bright orange and similar to butternut squash. Ripe pumpkins will keep for some time if kept in a cool, dry place.
Although there are some newer varieties available that have shorter vines or a semi-bush growth habit, the vines of common types are generally immense – up to fifty feet – so give your pumpkin plants plenty of room. It is suggested that the rows be spaced six to nine feet apart, with the plants spaced four feet apart in the rows. Work in plenty of organic matter in the form of compost to enrich the soil. It will take eighty to one-hundred and fifteen days from seed to harvest if all goes well. You can plant them as early as March, and even try a second crop in August.
Obtaining the seed can be as easy as buying a calabaza at the market and using the seed inside. This gives you a chance to try it before you plant it. On occasion you can find seed on-line as well. A couple of Florida-developed varieties to look for include ‘La Primera’ and ‘La Segunda’. Some cultivars worked on by the University of Puerto Rico include ‘Soler’ , ‘Taina Dorada’ and ‘Verde Luz’.
While tropical pumpkins grow well in our summer weather, they are not without their pest issues. The fungi powdery and downy mildew can occur, and the insects whiteflies and melon worms are common. Perhaps my biggest problem has been with melon worms. These green larva feed on the leaves skeletonizing them to a point where the foliage is destroyed. The material I found that works best to suppress melon worms is the pesticide called Spinosad. This is a natural material formulated into an insecticide. Although considered least-toxic, it still needs to be used as per label directions and with the normal precautions listed on the label – the label is the law!
The first time I had calabaza was in the West Indies, and my favorite meal was pumpkin soup. Bright orange, smooth and delicious, the soup was, and continues to be, my favorite! For more information on all types of summer vegetables, please visit https://www.facebook.com/CharlotteMGLifeline/. Ralph E. Mitchell is the Director/Horticulture Agent for the UF/IFAS Charlotte County Extension Service. He can be reached at 941-764-4344 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stephens, J. M. (2018) Calabaza—Cucurbita moschata Duch. ex Lam. The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.
Wessel-Beaver, L. (2009) Tropical Pumpkin (Squash) Breeding. University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez
Spence, C. (1998) The Pumpkin of the Tropics Likes Florida, Too, Research Shows. The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.