Pumpkin leaves ― The overshadowed vegetable

Encounter at Catholic Charities

Posted Wednesday, October 11, 2023 7:05 pm

By Judith Mutamba

October is a special month for those of us in Missouri.

As the weather changes from warm to cool to cold, we look ahead to winter months.

The month seems to be shrouded in mysteries and surprises.

It is a time when children, and even adults, expect some tricks or treats (most hoping for treats!).

It is the pumpkin season, and the pumpkin, which is a proud member of the squash family, can hold more treats than most people realize.

Here in Missouri, we picture pumpkins as the bearer of Halloween treats or the most important ingredient for our Thanksgiving pies.

Surprisingly, for many who live here the pumpkin plant is a diverse and nutritional fruit — one that the people of my home country, Zimbabwe, have known and enjoyed for a long while now.

As gardeners, grocery shoppers and people who must eat to live — we are blessed with an abundance of availability and knowledge of plants and plant-based foods.

Not only do plants provide important nutrients to keep us healthy, their roots, stems, leaves, fruits and seeds hold within them a variety of uses — some plants are edible from roots to seeds.

The pumpkin plant almost fits that description. It is full of treats!

While we may not consume the roots as food, in certain cultures they are considered medicinal.

Remarkably, every part of the pumpkin plant above the ground is edible.

Growing pumpkins originated in this very region in Central America and Mexico.

Interestingly, the American diet focuses primarily on consuming the pumpkin fruit, quite in line with the Indigenous North Americans who also grew pumpkins for thousands of years.

Nowadays, pumpkin fruit is used as a vegetable, best sliced, and roasted with its skin or steamed and mashed like potatoes.

It is also pureed and baked into pies or blended into puddings.

Some snackers have wisely selected roasted seeds as a part of their diet, and get healthy fats and nutrients for heart and bone health.

However, a part of the plant that has been neglected especially in this region, is the pumpkin leaf, which I often call “the overshadowed vegetable.”

A colleague of mine here at Catholic Charities asked me an interesting question as I was preparing this reflection — she wondered at what age I knew pumpkin leaves were edible and when it was that pumpkin leaves were introduced into my diet.

I did not have a ready answer!

It was like being asked when first I was aware there was air to breathe. When I was born, I instantly breathed. I didn’t have to think about it.

In the same way, when I started eating solid foods, pumpkin leaves were part of my meals as a toddler, for as long as pumpkin leaves were in season.

Pumpkin leaves are so central and so traditional to the African diet, it has been for me, like breathing.

In Zimbabwe, and in most African countries, pumpkin leaves are part of the diet just as spinach or lettuce is to the typical American diet.

Even though pumpkins are produced profusely in this region, the pumpkin leaf is overshadowed by the Halloween pumpkin mysteries and treats.

Recently I came across Cindy Ott’s Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon.

It was amazing to read about pumpkin in a historical context (I recommend it!), but to my dismay, again there was no mention of the pumpkin leaf vegetable — confirming my assessment that it has been utterly overshadowed.

Pumpkin leaves are an edible, nutritious vegetable added as a relish or side dish to meals.

The vegetable provides protein and minerals such as iron, calcium, phosphorus, potassium and Vitamins A, B and C.

Noteworthy to remember, pumpkin leaves contain higher levels of these vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, compared to the usual vegetables such as spinach, kale or broccoli.

The high phenolic levels and beta-carotene in the vegetable provide antioxidant protection against chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes mellitus, arthritis and cardiovascular diseases.

What better way to boost the immune system as fall and winter weather roll in, than to take advantage of the high nutrients in pumpkin leaves!

Beyond the nutritional value, embracing pumpkin leaves in recipes could have positive economic impact — income — as some organic farmers now produce pumpkin leaves for the farmers’ market.

In my own life, it has been known to build friendships and bring neighbors together as they garden and share their customs and special recipes.

This, of course, happened to me recently as I met a neighbor after driving by her home, where I noticed this pumpkin plant growing in her garden.

I was so excited to see such a healthy pumpkin plant with full leaves, that I parked my car and knocked on the door — wondering if anyone would harvest them.

The woman who answered, Dorothy, was very welcoming as she invited me to pick the pumpkin leaves. To this day, we keep in touch!

 To practice what I preach, today I will share with you a simple but delicious recipe — Pumpkin Leaves in Peanut Butter Sauce.

This recipe, in its variations, has been handed over in our families for generations, not in written form, but through observation, cooking and eating together.

That tradition continues as our children and their families add this dish as part of the season’s treat.

I invite you to try it this fall! Enjoy the new experience, tastes and stories that blossom in your own kitchen as you bring this international treat with me into the heart of Missouri.

Judith R. Mutamba (Bs MMSc, MS) is the Director of Health and Nutrition Services at Catholic Charities. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Home Economics — Food and Nutrition with emphasis in Dietetics from the University of Missouri (MU), a Masters of Medical Sciences from University of Uppsalla (Sweden), and a second Masters in Nutrition Exercise & Physiology from MU.  She is currently a doctoral student in health administration with the University of Phoenix, Arizona. Judith’s passion is on addressing chronic diet-related diseases. She sees her role and mission as that of translating relevant research into action — addressing chronic health disparities and working with other partners in the under-served communities.