How Do Giant Pumpkins Get So Big?


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Whether it’s pumpkin spice, pumpkin pies, or jack-o-lanterns, now that fall is upon us, pumpkins are back in season! One of the places that are known for having many pumpkins is, of course, the pumpkin patch. From tiny gourds to giant pumpkins, they’re all there. Giant pumpkins are serious business among the nation’s farmers. These giant pumpkins can weigh more than 1,000 pounds! One grower in Germany set the record for the world’s heaviest in 2016 with a squash that tipped the scales at 1,190.49 kilograms (2,624.6 pounds). It weighed more than some small cars. But, likely, he won’t hold that title long. These giants have been growing in mass by leaps and bounds every year, and there are no signs that they’re slowing down.

Every year, an international community of giant-pumpkin farmers loads up beastly gourds on trailers, carting them to local fairs and weigh-ins for a chance at the title for largest pumpkin. For some farmers, just the title is not all that matters. “For the kids to see it, that’s what it’s all about, really,” says Caleb Jacobus, the Wisconsin farmer is a member of the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth and the co-grower along with John Barlow of the fourth largest giant pumpkin in the entire world this season, weighing in at 2,283 lbs.“There’s nothing better than to have thousands of kids come by and sit on your pumpkin. That’s probably the happiest pumpkin there ever was.” But what does it take to grow a giant pumpkin?

The huge ones you might see at your local fall fair are Atlantic giant pumpkins (Cucurbita maxima). It’s not the species that we eat and carve, says Jessica Savage, a botanist at the University of Minnesota, in Duluth. Giant pumpkins grow about a hundred times faster than a typical pumpkin. They can gain an average of 20-40 pounds in a single day and as much as 60 pounds a day under the right conditions. A pumpkin has to transport water, sugar, and other nutrients to swell up the fruit. Giant pumpkins need a lot of water and sugar, and they need it fast. A typical giant pumpkin grows from seed to huge orange squash in only 120 to 160 days. 

To study how pumpkin stems transport so much food and water, she asked growers of giant pumpkins to give her small slivers of their competition fruits. She also got any pumpkins that burst before they could be judged. She even got little pumpkins that farmers had rejected before they plumped up and grew a few of her own. Savage took a close look at the stems, leaves a,d pumpkins and then compared them to those from other large squashes. Giant pumpkins don’t produce more sugars, she found. And their xylems and phloems don’t work differently. The pumpkins just have more transport tissue. “It’s almost like there’s this mass growth of the vascular tissue in [the] stem,” she says. Extra xylem and phloem help the stem pump more food and water into the fruit, leaving less for the rest of the plant. So the next time you go to a pumpkin patch and see a giant pumpkin, you’ll know the secret behind their size!

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