The healing secrets inside your Halloween jack-o’-lantern

When I was growing up in New England, pumpkins began making their annual appearance on doorsteps, mantels, porch rails, and stoops in late September. Those that were not carved for jack-o’-lanterns were kept around until Thanksgiving for cornucopia…and pumpkin pies.

While pumpkins are native to the Americas (seeds dating back thousands of years have been found in Mexico), their name actually comes from the Greek pepon, meaning large melon. Amazingly, pumpkins, squashes, zucchini, gourds, and even cucumbers are all varieties of this same species of plants. That’s one reason why squashes naturally interbreed and produce endless varieties of colors and patterns.

Pumpkin seeds, flesh, and flowers have been important food and medicine for Native Americans for centuries, and they shared their knowledge with early settlers of the 13 colonies.

Pilgrims liked pumpkins because they could be stored and eaten all winter long. And they’re packed with nutrients. Pumpkin flesh is rich in fiber, vitamins A and C, and potassium. And like other seeds, pumpkin seeds are high in protein, minerals, and essential fatty acids.

One popular use for pumpkins in colonial New England was as a kind of “pie.” The pilgrims would fill a pumpkin shell with cream, eggs, honey (before cane sugar became available), and healthy spices like cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice. Then, the pumpkin and its filling was buried among hot coals in a fireplace and baked.

Pumpkins were also used as medicine by Native Americans to treat intestinal worms, rheumatism, swelling, and urinary conditions. Modern research has shown that pumpkin flesh and seed-oil extracts have anti-cancer, anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antibiotic properties.

So this Halloween, you can honor the earliest American traditions and keep yourself healthy by carving and eating pumpkins and their seeds.

(Interestingly, the tradition of carving jack-o’-lanterns actually began in Ireland. During the darkest part of the year, between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice, the Irish lit their way and kept spirits at bay by illuminating carved-out turnips. Irish immigrants in the 19th century imported the tradition to the U.S., swapping turnips for pumpkins.)

When you’re carving your jack-o’-lantern, don’t forget to save the pumpkin innards for pies or other recipes. And after you rinse off the seeds, try toasting them in the oven until they are dry and crisp.

These healthy treats will keep you and your family and friends grinning like a jack-o’-lantern, long past the end of the month.