Plants on the Thanksgiving Table – Truths Revealed

While turkey is the center of many Thanksgiving meals, the side dishes and desserts deserve equal attention. Some of the common vegetables and fruits associated with Thanksgiving have interesting – if sometimes a bit misleading – histories or myths surrounding them. Below are a few questions (and answers) about sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and cranberries – staples for Thanksgiving.

Gourds are a popular option for decor during Thanksgiving. 

Are sweet potatoes and yams the same thing? 

Believe it or not - yams and sweet potatoes are entirely different plants! Sweet potatoes used for baking, pies, and fries come from Ipomoea batatas, or a vining member of the morning glory family. Plants produce edible underground storage structures called tuberous roots. Sweet potatoes are native to Central and South America and are available in a wide variety of colors. They are divided into dry or moist types. The moist, orange ones are most familiar to Americans.

Yams (Dioscorea polystachya) are also vining plants, but they belong to the yam family. Yams are native to Africa and Asia. Yams also produce a large underground storage structure (called tubers) that are often much larger than a sweet potato (up to 50 pounds). Believe it or not – all those cans of yams that we see in the grocery store in the US usually contain sweet potatoes – not true yams. True yams are popular in Latin American countries but rarely seen in the US.

Sweet potatoes have been grown in the US for a long time – they were popular in the south around the time of the Civil War. They were inadvertently called yams by slaves because they resembled the true yams that they grew in Africa. The common name of yam has stuck with sweet potatoes ever since.

Who doesn't like sweet potatoes during the holidays!

What type of pumpkin is made into canned pumpkin? 

Generally, little pumpkin is used for canned pumpkin puree!  Instead, most canned pumpkin is actually made from butternut or other winter squashes. But before you complain to processors with emails about misleading consumers, this one is a little more complicated. Both pumpkin and squash are members of the cucurbit family. (The cucurbit family also includes cantaloupe, cucumber, watermelons, and gourds.) Pumpkin tends to be a general term that describes a round, hard fruit with yellow to orange skin. Therefore the common name of pumpkin is used for several different species of squash. Cucurbita pepo includes field pumpkins (pumpkins that we associate with jack-o-lanterns and Halloween) and acorn squash. Cucurbita moschata includes butternut squash and a few other pumpkins (‘Dickinson’ is a popular one). Cucurbita maxima are the large-fruited squash like Hubbard squash and pumpkins like ‘Big Max’ or ‘Dill’s Atlantic Giant’ (these are the super-sized pumpkins you see at the state fair). The final species is Cucurbita mixta which includes cushaw-type pumpkins.

The primary squash/pumpkin used for pumpkin puree is a type of Cucurbita moschata, which includes butternut squash and Dickinson pumpkin, the most common commercially grown cultivar. While Curcurbita pepo is the species most commonly associated with the name pumpkin (and it is edible), it is not used for canned pumpkin puree because it tends to be more fibrous or stringy.

Where are cranberries from? 

Cranberries (Vaccinium marcorcarpon) for the US market are grown primarily in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington. Cranberry is a low-growing, cold-hardy, evergreen shrub or groundcover that is native to swamps and bogs of northeastern North America. The fruit is often harvested by flooding the fields because the ripe fruit will float to the top. Native Americans used this native fruit for pemmican, juice, and a dye. Cranberries almost certainly showed up on the table at early Thanksgiving feasts.

What is pumpkin spice?  

While this certainly wasn’t on the first Thanksgiving table, you see this ingredient in everything right now – lattes, desserts, candles, and even dog biscuits. Pumpkin spice seems to be the flavor and/or scent of fall. But did you know that pumpkin spice does not contain any pumpkin?  The combination of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice exclusively make up the “pumpkin spice” flavor. Interestingly, all of these spices are from tropical plants that are commonly used to flavor pumpkin pie – hence the name pumpkin spice.

In a couple of weeks, when you are sitting at the Thanksgiving table, give thanks – not only to family, friends, and food – but also to the histories and stories associated with some of those tasty side dishes sure to be on your table and plate!



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