UF/IFAS Researcher Hopes to Breed, Grow Nutritious Pumpkins in Florida

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By Brad Buck, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences

Pumpkins and their seeds are good for you. For example, the flesh of the fruit is a good source of many vitamins and fiber, and its seeds provide unsaturated fats that help reduce cholesterol, among their other health benefits. The pumpkin’s nutrient values are driving Geoffrey Meru, a fruit and vegetable geneticist at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), to try to breed and grow dual-purpose pumpkins in the Sunshine State.

But these are not pumpkins the size of what you might use for Halloween. They’re smaller, like winter squash, Meru said. If Meru successfully breeds the pumpkins, he said he hopes farmers can start growing them in four to six years.

Meru, a UF/IFAS assistant professor of horticultural sciences, is working with a farmer to start growing pumpkins near the UF/IFAS Tropical Research and Education Center (TREC) in Homestead, Florida, where Meru works as a faculty member. The local grower will try to grow pumpkins and gauge demand for them at a farmers market, Meru said.

He and his research team are also planning to conduct growth trials for three seed-oil pumpkins this year. Although seeds of all types of pumpkins are edible, seeds from a seed-oil pumpkin lack a seed coat, and are called “naked,” Meru said. Naked pumpkin seeds are best suited for oil production and snacks. In most cases, seed-oil pumpkin flesh does not make for good eating. That’s why it’s not grown much in the United States, he said.

“The end goal of our breeding program is to develop pumpkin varieties that have both high seed nutrition and whose flesh can be eaten,” Meru said. “This will make the pumpkin more appealing to U.S. growers. I am not aware of any grower in Florida producing seed-oil pumpkin — so essentially it would be a new crop in Florida. We have initiated a breeding program for ‘dual purpose’ varieties at TREC.”

To start meeting the goals of his pumpkin-breeding program, Meru and a team of UF/IFAS researchers have just published a study in which they examined the nutrients in the seeds of 35 pumpkin varieties. The researchers wanted to find the pumpkin seed varieties that are most nutritionally balanced for consumers and that can be used for the breeding program.

With the seeds, they focused on oil, protein and fatty acid content, Meru said.

They found that pumpkins grown primarily for cooking pies, canning and more edible uses have lower oil content but higher protein content in the seeds. Therefore, the seeds from these pumpkins are not suited for seed-oil production, Meru said. Pumpkin varieties grown for edible “naked” seeds have higher seed-oil content, but lower protein content.

A few pumpkin varieties are grown for edible flesh and “naked” seeds. These have moderate levels of seed oil and protein, Meru said. However, the flesh and seed quality is not the best.

Scientists also found pumpkin varieties that have high levels of unsaturated fats (healthy oils), which help reduce cholesterol, lower blood pressure and promote heart health, Meru said.

He and his research team plan to combine the best traits of the pumpkin seeds they studied and breed the healthiest fruit possible.

The study led by Meru is published in the journal Scientia Horticulturae.

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