Question: This year we grew some enormous pumpkins. Our neighbor just told us they are really squash. Is this true?

Answer: Home gardeners may easily be confused this time of the year when they go out to harvest their winter squash and pumpkins. The genetic history of the pumpkin is so intertwined with the squash and the gourd that it's sometimes difficult to tell them apart. Exactly what is a squash and what is a pumpkin?

Perhaps the easiest answer to that question can be attributed to a University of Illinois professor who said a pumpkin is something you carve, a squash is something you cook and a gourd is something you look at. Although it's not quite that simple, it's also not that difficult. The answer is in the stem.

Pumpkins, squashes and gourds all belong to the same genetic family Cucurbita. Within that family are several species of subgroups: Cucurbita pepo, Cucurbita maxima, and Cucurbita moschata.

The pepo species is usually recognized as the true pumpkin. Varieties within this group have a bright orange skin and hard, woody, distinctly furrowed stems like "Conneticut field," Jack-o-lantern," and "small sugar," for example. but the group also includes gourds, vegetable marrow, pattypan summer squash, gray and black zucchini, and summer crookneck squash.

The maxima species also contains varieties that produce pumpkin-like fruit but the skin is usually more yellow than orange and the stems are soft and spongy or corky, without ridges and without an enlargement next to the fruit. They don't really make good handles for Jack-o-lanterns. "Atlantic giant," "big Max," and "show king" are often listed as pumpkins but are more properly called pumpkin squash or squash-type pumpkins. In any case, they may not be accepted as entries in a largest pumpkin contest by a county fair board since they aren't true pumpkins. Other members of the maxima group are hubbard squashes, banana squashes, buttercup squashes, and turban squashes - in short, most autumn and winter squash.

Finally, there's the moschata species. Varieties in this group are usually long and oblong instead of round and have tan rather than orange skin. The stems are deeply ridged and enlarged next to the fruit. Ironically, a member of this group is used for much of the canned pumpkin sold in this country. Other non-pumpkin members include the squash-like cushaw and winter crookneck.

Question: We managed to keep our poinsettia from last Christmas alive and growing. What do we do now to make sure it blooms for Christmas?

Answer: Place the poinsettia in a well-lit position in your home. Make sure from this point on you exclude all artificial light from the plant for 16 hours each night. Either cover the plant with a light-proof box each evening, or place it in an unlit room or closet. This daily 16-hour period needs to be absolute darkness, since even a momentary flash of light will interrupt the necessary dark period and inhibit bud set. Once the flower buds are set, usually by early December, the 16-hour dark period will no longer be necessary.

EDITOR'S NOTE: For answers to local gardening questions, contact Master Gardener Rachel Gana at 642-8723.

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