At first glance, a plump orange pumpkin propped on a porch likely brings to mind the autumnal season; warm pumpkin spice lattes, spooky jack-o’-lanterns, and a day at the pumpkin patch spent finding the very best one to bring home. These traditions have become a large part of American culture and an indicator of the approaching fall season. But how did they start, and how has something so small as a pumpkin come to represent entire holidays, and even entire months? With over a billion pounds of pumpkins grown in the United States each year, there is no doubt that the round orange squash is an insignia of autumn.

Pumpkins, a fruit variety of winter squash, have a hard rind and are typically orange in color; though with small changes to their genetic makeup they can take on many different hues, including shades of green, blue, yellow, and tan. While these uniquely colored pumpkins can be harder to find and often more expensive, they can make fantastic decorations and even be used to make sweet pies or other similar desserts. Though their use as both decor and a source of nutrition has spread across the globe as of the 21st century, pumpkins are indigenous to the Americas and have played a large part in many Native American tribes. According to tribes spanning from the Southwest to the Northeast, pumpkins and other winter squash make up one third of the “Three Mythological Sisters of Agriculture,” alongside beans and corn. The legend says that the three “sister” foods are meant to be both planted and eaten together, as they work together and promote one another’s growth while in the ground. As the tall corn stalks give the beans something to climb, the beans fertilize the soil for the corn and squash, and the squash’s large leaves protect the beans from hungry animals. Since every part of a pumpkin is edible— from the flowers to the seeds— they became a popular source of nutrition for many native tribes. After seeds were found and dated back to 7000 BCE, it’s clear that pumpkins have been an effective source of sustenance for centuries.

Perhaps the most popular use of pumpkins worldwide is one that marks the night of October 31st. Jack-o’-lanterns have been a staple of Halloween for centuries, and though the carved and lit pumpkin as we know it didn’t exist until the 19th century, the term and idea of a jack-o’-lantern originated in Ireland in the 17th century. The Legend of Stingy Jack— an old Irish myth— tells the tale of an old drunkard named Jack whom Satan is keen to meet. After repeatedly outsmarting the devil, Jack dies, but is denied entry to both heaven and hell and forced to wander aimlessly for the rest of eternity. He asks the devil to gift him one small burning ember that he could carry inside of a hollowed-out turnip and use as a lantern as he roams the Irish countryside. Celtics in turn began to carve threatening faces into turnips and potatoes and set an ember to burn inside of them to ward off “Jack o’ the Lantern” and other evil spirits. When Irish settlers migrated to North America in the 19th century, they carried many traditions with them— including jack-o’-lanterns. After they arrived and were introduced to pumpkins, the squash were found to be more suitable for carving and lighting than the turnips previously used.

Pumpkins are undoubtedly a popular part of American culture as both decoration and nutrition, and have been throughout history. Standing as more than just a symbol of Halloween and Thanksgiving, they’ve helped to sustain entire populations and fuel long standing traditions from all over the world. Whether it be through pumpkin pies on the table or jack-o’-lanterns on the front porch, something so small as a pumpkin really can signify so much more.