The Pumpkin of the Tropics Likes Florida, Too, Research Shows

Cindy Spence

Don Maynard (941) 751-7636

BRADENTON—The pumpkin pie of Thanksgiving future may come out of Don Maynard’s research laboratory.

The University of Florida researcher is working to develop a tropical pumpkin, or calabaza, that is easier to grow than traditional pie pumpkins. And as Maynard’s research progresses, Floridians soon may learn what pumpkin lovers in the tropics already know — calabaza tastes better.

The tropical pumpkin belongs to the same family as butternut squash and the traditional North American pumpkin. The tropical pumpkin is native to Central America and became a favorite in the Caribbean and South America before traveling to Florida with immigrants from those regions.

The calabaza has a smoother, less stringy, flesh than North American pumpkins, says Maynard, a vegetable specialist with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. In fact, cooks whose pumpkin cuisine starts with a can may already have a taste for tropical pumpkin.

“Anyone eating canned pumpkin is familiar with tropical pumpkin because they have been eating a close relative of calabaza,” Maynard said.

The only thing keeping calabaza from winning pumpkin popularity contests has been its long, cumbersome vines, Maynard said. And that’s where his work began.

Under a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant that funds research into tropical and subtropical crops, Maynard started cross-breeding pumpkin varieties in 1991 at UF’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Bradenton.

Tropical pumpkin has long vines, 50 feet long sometimes, so Maynard started by crossing tropical pumpkin with butternut squash to reduce the tangle of vines. After developing the bush type, Maynard and colleagues Linda Beaver from the University of Puerto Rico and Bruce Carle at the Central Florida Research and Education Center in Leesburg began evaluating how the calabaza

grows in Florida’s climate. They have found that calabaza tolerates heat, low and high moisture and insect pests of all kinds.

“This is one tough pumpkin,” Maynard said. “It’s a farmer-friendly, resilient, adaptable plant.”

Next up is breeding ideal characteristics for shape — consumers like round pumpkins — and color — consumers like a yellow-orange flesh.

Already, the new, bushy vines turn out to have other advantages over calabaza’s original trailing vines. Since the vines are more compact, the yield has gone up. The new pumpkins also require minimal input in the form of fertilizers and pesticides, making it an environmentally friendly crop.

Maynard said farmers are sure to like the new pumpkins’ growing cycle. The old tropical pumpkin took 110 to 115 days from planting to harvest. The new varieties can be harvested in less than 80 days, drastically cutting production costs. In South Florida, calabaza can be grown year-round and elsewhere in Florida it can be grown anytime except mid-winter.

“I think this is the wave of the future. Farmers are going to like the short vine types and we continue to get requests for seeds from around the world,” Maynard said. “Word is getting around. People are aware of it and are willing to try it.”

The higher yield and shortened growing cycle should translate into lower prices for consumers, who are now largely buying imported pumpkins, Maynard said.

“This is a basic vegetable for people in the Caribbean, Central America and South America and so many people from those regions have come to the U.S. that it’s a vegetable in demand,” Maynard said. “The tropical pumpkins we are importing could just as well be grown in Florida.”

Maynard said people who like butternut squash should take to tropical pumpkin. In most tropical cultures there are countless ways to prepare it and in Mexico, it is even used to make candy.

The appeal of the pumpkin is worldwide, Maynard said, especially for autumn holidays.

“In almost any culture,” Maynard said, “pumpkin is a component in Thanksgiving dinner. And in many cultures, it’s a tropical pumpkin.”