Driving south from Los Angeles on the I-5 in a smoggy sea of red brake lights on behemoth cement interchanges, a line of orange signs running alongside Citadel Mall caught my eye: “World’s Largest Pumpkin.” Intrigued by this hyperbolic, almost certainly fabricated claim, I pulled into the parking lot and set off toward the outdoor outlet’s main stretch.
In Peanuts, Linus Van Pelt is the blanket-dragging philosopher who believes in the supernatural power of the Great Pumpkin. He sits in the pumpkin patch on Halloween night, waiting for it to rise. He’s mocked for his conviction, but his beliefs aren’t entirely unfounded: There really is something special about a huge pumpkin, something awe-inspiring that approaches godliness.
Pumpkins are massive, funny, and anthropomorphic—what other fruit is used more often to create faces?—and a giant pumpkin, one of those multi-hundred-pound state fair varieties, has a certain gravitational pull. Looking at one, I feel compelled to be closer to it. To... touch it? Hug it? I can’t tell. But just look at a picture of a giant pumpkin surrounded by normal sized pumpkins and you’ll see what I mean. It is a king you set your eyes upon.
After a leisurely stroll through the mall (thinking things like “When’s the last time I was in a Lids??”) I finally got to the alleged World’s Largest Pumpkin. What stood before me was not a real pumpkin at all, just an inflatable jack-o’-lantern. While it was indeed big, I wasn’t impressed with this false god. Obviously the biggest pumpkin in the world is not at a mall in LA County.
I can’t grow a giant pumpkin. I live in an apartment and just don’t have the space to give it a proper home. But that doesn’t diminish my fantasy of one day siring my own. For anyone who might be interested in learning more, what follows is a journey through the strange, awesome history of giant pumpkins and those who grow them.
If you want to grow a giant pumpkin, a good first step would be finding the right seed, because not any old seed will do. One website with competition-winning seeds is a delight—photo after photo of elated farmers standing next to their prize-winning pumpkins. These images are reminiscent of fishermen standing next to their catch, but rather than predator and prey, they are parent and child. Just one more charming aspect of the gargantuan gourd.
But how we got to growing massive pumpkins was no small feat. According to The Smithsonian, “The field pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) is the product of 8,000 years of selective breeding... derived from the same Mexican stock as zucchini and spaghetti squash. Mammoth [pumpkins] arise from a different squash species (Cucurbita maxima), a wild plant with a softball-size fruit that originated in South America, possibly near Buenos Aires.”
Today, the most popular variety of pumpkin for competitive growing is the Atlantic Giant, patented by “The Pumpkin King,” Howard Dill. This guy Howard Dill live-laugh-loved pumpkins.
A Canadian farmer, Dill was a self-taught geneticist trying to grow a bigger gourd, a “part-time mad scientist,” writes Maclean’s magazine. “Home from the evening’s chores, he’d work for hours at the kitchen table, doodling pumpkins and taking notes on his experiments.” If you want to grow a mammoth pumpkin, go find yourself an Atlantic Giant.
The largest pumpkin grown in North America was just weighed in earlier this month at the Safeway World Championship in Half Moon Bay, a town 30 miles south of San Francisco. The competition’s winner, a behemoth named Maverick weighing in at 2,560 pounds, was delivered by two-time champion grower Travis Gienger. While I don’t know how social circles in Gienger’s hometown of Anoka, Minnesota operate, I think it’s safe to assume the guy with a giant pumpkin is the toast of the town.
Gienger’s 2,560-pound gourd puts him in hallowed company in the world of jacked jack-o’-lanterns. Maverick took the North American weight record, which was set at 2,554 pounds just 5 days before Speedway in Clarence, New York. But both pumpkins fall significantly short of the world record of 2,701 pounds, set by Italian grower Stefano Cupitri in 2021.
The world championship at Half Moon Bay is a premier pumpkin-weighing event. And if you had any notion that a pumpkin weigh-off might be amateurish, a quick perusal of the contest’s rules and affiliations will dispel that.
The Speedway World Championship is in accordance with a gourd governing group, the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, which regulates and standardizes pumpkin-judging practices. Their rule book is 38 pages long. One interesting nuance in the rules includes that “To be classified as pumpkin, specimen must be 75% yellow/orange in color; all others will be classified as squash.”
The competition can be quite strict when it comes to the proper qualifications for an entry. In 2021, a Wisconsin man who grew a 2,520-pound pumpkin was disqualified for a tiny crack. That tiny crack ruined the chances for a gargantuan cash prize, to the tune of $20,000. But the grower did well to hide his disappointment, saying, “There’s no crying in pumpkin growing... I know I can do it again, so we just got to look forward to the future.”
Reading about competition winners, one gets the sense that massive pumpkin growing requires a perfect mix of self-seriousness and playfulness. The enterprise is inherently silly, while still providing tangible benefits. I mean, do you know how many pumpkin pies a baker could bake with a 2,560-pound piece of fruit? No really, I’m asking. I’d guess 1,800?
That being said, one of the most incredible ways a giant pumpkin has ever been put to use is as a seagoing vessel.
The world record for longest distance traveled on water by pumpkin is 38 miles. It was set by a Nebraska man who decided to take his gourd on the river in celebration of his 60th birthday. May we all find that same joy and conviction one day. There’s a great video of him, his pumpkin precariously bobbing on the river, guys on the dock giving him beer, stuff like that. It’s a really wholesome watch.
And every October in Oregon, a regatta of pumpkins takes place. Yes, a fleet of pumpkin-sized canoes take to the water. It’s enough to make you want to paddle a pumpkin. Really, really badly.
Competitive pumpkin weigh-offs are growing in popularity, and the pumpkins themselves are getting bigger, with more growers and evolving science contributing to the field. Looking at past winners of the Half Moon Bay competition, there is a very clear upward trend in winning weight. The first year of the competition, in 1974, declared a winner at 132 pounds. Today, the records stand in the high 2,000s. At this rate, the pumpkins will continue their astronomical expansion, and given enough time, they will be larger than gods. And when that happens, we better pay our respects. Linus was right after all.