BRADENTON---The pumpkin pie of Thanksgiving future may come out of DonMaynard's research laboratory.
The University of Florida researcher is working to develop a tropicalpumpkin, or calabaza, that is easier to grow than traditional pie pumpkins.And as Maynard's research progresses, Floridians soon may learn whatpumpkin lovers in the tropics already know -- calabaza tastes better.
The tropical pumpkin belongs to the same family as butternut squash and thetraditional North American pumpkin. The tropical pumpkin is native toCentral America and became a favorite in the Caribbean and South Americabefore traveling to Florida with immigrants from those regions.
The calabaza has a smoother, less stringy, flesh than North Americanpumpkins, says Maynard, a vegetable specialist with UF's Institute of Foodand Agricultural Sciences. In fact, cooks whose pumpkin cuisine starts witha can may already have a taste for tropical pumpkin.
"Anyone eating canned pumpkin is familiar with tropical pumpkin becausethey have been eating a close relative of calabaza," Maynard said.
The only thing keeping calabaza from winning pumpkin popularity contestshas been its long, cumbersome vines, Maynard said. And that's where hiswork began.
Under a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant that funds research intotropical and subtropical crops, Maynard started cross-breeding pumpkinvarieties in 1991 at UF's Gulf Coast Research and Education Center inBradenton.
Tropical pumpkin has long vines, 50 feet long sometimes, so Maynard startedby crossing tropical pumpkin with butternut squash to reduce the tangle ofvines. After developing the bush type, Maynard and colleagues Linda Beaverfrom the University of Puerto Rico and Bruce Carle at the Central FloridaResearch and Education Center in Leesburg began evaluating how the calabazagrows in Florida's climate. They have found that calabaza tolerates heat,low and high moisture and insect pests of all kinds.
"This is one tough pumpkin," Maynard said. "It's a farmer-friendly,resilient, adaptable plant."
Next up is breeding ideal characteristics for shape -- consumers like roundpumpkins -- and color -- consumers like a yellow-orange flesh.
Already, the new, bushy vines turn out to have other advantages overcalabaza's original trailing vines. Since the vines are more compact, theyield has gone up. The new pumpkins also require minimal input in the formof fertilizers and pesticides, making it an environmentally friendly crop.
Maynard said farmers are sure to like the new pumpkins' growing cycle. Theold tropical pumpkin took 110 to 115 days from planting to harvest. The newvarieties can be harvested in less than 80 days, drastically cuttingproduction costs. In South Florida, calabaza can be grown year-round andelsewhere in Florida it can be grown anytime except mid-winter.
"I think this is the wave of the future. Farmers are going to like theshort vine types and we continue to get requests for seeds from around theworld," Maynard said. "Word is getting around. People are aware of it andare willing to try it."
The higher yield and shortened growing cycle should translate into lowerprices for consumers, who are now largely buying imported pumpkins, Maynardsaid.
"This is a basic vegetable for people in the Caribbean, Central America andSouth America and so many people from those regions have come to the U.S.that it's a vegetable in demand," Maynard said. "The tropical pumpkins weare importing could just as well be grown in Florida."
Maynard said people who like butternut squash should take to tropicalpumpkin. In most tropical cultures there are countless ways to prepare itand in Mexico, it is even used to make candy.
The appeal of the pumpkin is worldwide, Maynard said, especially for autumnholidays.
"In almost any culture," Maynard said, "pumpkin is a component inThanksgiving dinner. And in many cultures, it's a tropical pumpkin."
The above story is based on materials provided by University Of Florida -- Institute Of Food And Agricultural Sciences. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
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