The more warts, the better: How pumpkins get all those warts

Move over, Cinderella: Your orange, carriage-shaped pumpkin has some competition for fall decorating.

Porches are now sporting new colored pumpkins in shades of beige, green, red, white, gray, mustard, brown, even “blue pink” (yes, there is such a color). From palm-sized to several-hundred-pound prize-winning giants, consumers have scores more pumpkin choices than there were just a short decade ago.

The latest trend is the unexpected imperfection of conspicuous warts, raised blemishes that add ornamental character to the iconic orange pumpkin.

Ask any kid: The wartier and weirder the pumpkin, the better for the Halloween season. Naturally, wart popularity is growing. Because people want more warts, plant companies and university researchers are breeding for more warts. This all translates to selling more warty pumpkins. (Ah-ha! The mighty wart dollar!)

Creating all these pumpkin bumps, different sizes and colors has to do with plant flowers engaging in cross-pollination, which can happen unintentionally in the home garden or on purpose by plant breeders who specialize in bringing these various colored, bumpy and knuckle-like covered gourds and pumpkins to your favorite garden center, grocery store and farmers market.

How does cross-pollination and cross-breeding intentionally happen? It all has to do with pollination and the scientific group where the plants belong.

Cucurbits (for short), the botanical group that includes pumpkins, are “monoecious” in their flowering habit, which is fairly unique among vegetable crops. This means separate male and female flowers are produced on the same plant. For fruit to form from the female flower, pollen from the male flower must be transferred to the female flower. This pollination is done with the much appreciated and vital help of bees.

Certain bees have plant flower preferences, too. As you would guess, squash bees prefer to pollinate squash flowers and leave watermelon flowers to the other heroes: honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees.

Scientific names of plants have two parts: the species and the genera (plural of genus). Plants in the Cucurbitaceae (gourd) family contain many species and genus of squash, pumpkins, melons and cucumbers. Example: The cantaloupe’s scientific name is Cucumis melo, with “Cucumis” as the genus and “melo” as the species. Cucumber is Cucumis sativus, so even though both cantaloupe and cucumbers are in the same Cucumis genus, they are not the same species, so do not cross-pollinate.

Think of each different species within the cucurbit family like horses and cows: They simply cannot create offspring together. So your cucumber plant will not cross pollinate with your summer squash.

Only cucurbits within the same species can cross-pollinate and produce a unique pumpkin or gourd with different outcomes like color, shape, size, taste and warts. Think of pumpkins, summer squash and some winter squash types that are in the same species Cucurbita pepo. So a poodle and labrador will create a labradoodle. What would happen when a dark green acorn squash crosses with a yellow summer zucchini? Perhaps a super hard-shelled, bright yellow carriage for Cinderella?

The effect of crossing is not usually seen the first season. The wacky cucurbit combinations result from saving cross-pollinated seeds and planting them the next growing season. A home gardener may end up with an unusual pumpkin by letting a chance crossed seedling grow from the previous gardening season.

James J. H. Gregory from Marblehead, Mass., is a famous breeder of hubbard squash, dating all the way back to 1897. His book “Squashes and How to Grow Them” is still in print today, and his Victor (or “Red Warty Thing”) seeds are also in commerce. And what a beautiful, warty sight they are to behold.

Today, Stokes Seeds Inc. is one of the leaders in cross-breeding to make cucurbits that are decoratively covered in warts and sold under the “Super Freak Label™.” It can take up to 10 generations to bring some of these knobby lookers to market.

Planning ahead for next spring’s planting for the fall pumpkin harvest, don’t overlook the various choices from seed sellers of bumpy, bewitching pumpkins including Warty Goblin, Miniwarts, Knucklehead, Pumpkin Warty Gnome, Ugly Mugly, Goosebumps and Goosebumps II, Warts Galore, Warts Plethora, and Bunch O Warts, to name a few. Shop early for seeds;, they may sell out quickly!

In addition to intentionally breeding warty pumpkins, there are other reasons that cucurbits actually get warts:

  • They can become infected with viruses (four different mosaic types of virus can turn smooth pumpkins to lumpy ones).
  •  They can have oedma, a condition that causes water imbalance (weather issues) in the fruit, which results in cells getting bigger, then bursting, then scarring the fruit. It is a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the short version.
  • Insects like cucumber beetles feed on the fruit before the fruit is developed so the skin hardens and creates lumpy surfaces.
  • And don’t forget the first reason: They are just warty, as Mr. Gregory found way back.

So where does this all leave us in the big scheme of fall pumpkins for decorating, Halloween trick-or-treating and Thanksgiving?

Nowhere, really. Just sayin’, some pumpkins have warts.

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