by Ian Duggan

What is a pumpkin? The question is a little more difficult than you might think, being based in part on geography. In the USA, a pumpkin is specifically a cultivar of ‘winter squash’ (Cucurbita sp.) that is round, with a smooth, slightly ribbed skin, which is most often deep yellow to orange in colour. Referred to as jack-o’-lantern and pie pumpkins, these are a cultivar of the species Cucurbita pepo. In New Zealand, however, we take a more liberal approach to our naming, using the moniker ‘pumpkins’ for any of the rounded varieties of winter squash (though typically varieties of Cucurbita maxima). Nevertheless, what the Americans – and we – refer to as ‘Giant Pumpkins’ all belong to this latter species – C. maxima.

Not Wells’ pumpkin: A 190 lb pumpkin, 7 ft. in circumference, grown by Mr Thomson, Gisborne. New Zealand Mail, 29 May 1907.

If Wikipedia is to be believed, the culture of growing giant pumpkins emerged out of North America. Unusually large pumpkin cultivars having been sold there since at least 1834, when the ‘Mammoth’ variety was first offered. Increasingly large pumpkins have been produced by selective growing, mostly by ordinary growers. The current world record for the heaviest ever pumpkin is 2624.6 pounds (or 1190.5 kg), grown by Mathias Willemijns of Belgium. This is a way ahead of New Zealand’s largest effort to date, that grown by Morrinsville’s Tim Harris, which was weighed in at Hamilton Gardens on the 28th of March 2021, totalling 844.5 kg. Records for the World’s heaviest pumpkins since 1900, and those of New Zealand pumpkins since 2011, can be found on the fascinating ‘Giant Pumpkins New Zealand’ website.

But who were the pioneers of heavy pumpkins in New Zealand? I looked at records printed in New Zealand newspapers primarily from the 1800s, a period of time when reports of giant pumpkins were common. Despite growing relative shrimps by todays standards, one grower – Zaccheus Wells – got a lot of press based on his monsters of the time.  I focus here primarily on the fruits of his efforts.

Perhaps the earliest report of a noteworthy pumpkin in New Zealand was in 1865, and thus by default takes the first record for heaviest pumpkin in New Zealand. This was “a choice pumpkin, weighing 122 lbs. [= 55.3 kg], belonging to Colonel Greer, C.B., who has grown it in his garden.” The pumpkin was “sent to Mr. Edward King… to be exhibited by him for the benefit of the Auckland public”. This pumpkin was used as an advertisement for the benefits of Tauranga; “This pumpkin speaks volumes of the capabilities and advantages which Tauranga possesses in having a mild climate and a rich, open, fertile country, not to be equalled in the Southern Hemisphere”.[i] Besides his largish pumpkin, Colonel Henry Harpur Greer also found fame as the commander of the 68th Durham Light Infantry, which he led in the Battle of Pukehinahina (Gate Pā), near Tauranga, where the British were resoundingly defeated. Defeat was near for his sizable pumpkin also, with a report appearing two years after his of a “Monster Pumpkin….”, “weighing no less than 185 1/4 lbs. [= 84.0 kg], with a circumference of over six feet”. It too was taken to Auckland, this time from Kaukapakapa.

Zaccheus William Wells of Mangorei, Taranaki, took New Zealand’s giant pumpkins to a new level in 1876. Born in London in 1830, Wells settled in Taranaki where he served in the militia and laboured both on the roads and in the bush; very religious, he built a chapel on his property in 1869.[ii] Prior to his giant pumpkin, he had already exhibited his vegetable growing prowess. For example, in the second ever Taranaki Agricultural Show, held in March 1870, Wells won various prizes for his apples, dried hops, and an “enormous cucumber measuring nearly two feet”, while his mangold wurtzel and collection of jams were also highly commended.[iii],[iv] Wells’ fame really began to bloom on 6 May 1876, however, when Auckland newspaper Daily Southern Cross reported the following:

“Recently a settler brought into New Plymouth a dray load of pumpkins, the largest of which weighed 213lb [= 96.6 kg]. It measured 7 feet 9 inches [2.4 m] in the widest part, and was grown by Mr Z. Wells, of Mangorei, province of Taranaki”.[v]

Word rapidly spread around the country. The Colonist, Nelson, on the 9th noted:

New Plymouth is rejoicing over a pumpkin, weighing two hundred and thirteen pounds. The Herald says it took two men to carry it from the dray to the scales; the girth of this mammoth gourd was twenty-seven feet nine inches in the widest part. The soil on Mr Z. Wells’ farm must be very rich to produce such monstrous vegetables. [This vegetable monster, and four smaller ones, formed a good dray load for a team of four bullocks.]”[vi]

On the same day the Waikato Times also reported on what they called “A Whopper”, with some envy: 

“Talk about our Waikato pumpkin growers – they may reckon themselves small potatoes, and very few in a heap after which we learn from a Taranaki contemporary… As to the champion pie melon grower of Hamilton, whose productions were erstwhile chronicled in these columns, a melon-choly smile of despair will ripple over his face when he reads of pumpkins, five of which formed a good dray load for four bullocks… the biggest of the five weighed just 213lbs to its own cheek. It took two men to ‘assist’ it out of the dray into the Courtney’s auction room…”.[vii]

Advertisement for Wells’ pumpkin. Taranaki Herald, 6 May 1876

The Evening Post (Wellington) took up the story, keeping us informed of what happened to the pumpkin from there. They reported on the 20th of May that:

the monster pumpkin grown by Mr. Z. Wells has been cut up. Only a small quantity of seeds were found inside. Mr. W. Courtney is sending one half of the pumpkin to a seedsman in Wellington, and the other half to a seedsman in Auckland. We shall watch anxiously for the arrival of the moiety with which our Wellington hearts are to be gladdened”.[viii]

It arrived in Wellington a few days later, and on the 26th the Evening Post again reported on Wellington’s portion:

Half of the monster Taranaki pumpkin has arrived, and is now on exhibition in the shop window of Mr. C. K. Jeffs, Lambton Quay. The piece received measures 82 inches in circumference at the cut part. It is 31 inches broad and 21 1/2 inches deep, and the flesh averages a thickness of 5 inches”. [ix]

The New Zealand Mail provided more detail the same day:

Part of the Taranaki pumpkin has reached Wellington, Mr C. K. Jeffs having purchased it. It was on view in Mr. Jeff’s window all Thursday afternoon and evening, and attracted very great attention. The total weight was 213 lbs., and the Wellington part weighs 108 lbs., that part which went to Auckland being larger in size but a few pounds lighter. The grower, Mr. Wells, received £10 for the pumpkin”.[x]

And what was the pumpkin’s ultimate fate? The Evening Post reminded its readers on 5 June that the “big pumpkin grown in Taranaki was purchased by Mr. Jeffs, and exhibited in his window”. However, disaster had struck:

A few days ago he [Jeffs] removed to new premises, but obtained permission to leave his pumpkin in the old shop for a couple of days. On Saturday the [new] owner of the old shop went in and saw the vegetable there, and seeing a dustman passing, he called him, and ordered him to take it and throw it into the sea, and the dustman did as he was told. On Saturday night Mr. Jeffs thought he would go and see how his pumpkin was getting on, but to his astonishment it was nowhere to be seen. Then he learned what had become of it, and was very wroth. He says he owes the man who caused it to be removed £10, but he will deduct £5 for the pumpkin. We don’t remember having heard such a row about a pumpkin before”.[xi]

So, the Wellington portion came to an untimely end. But what of Auckland’s half? Well, nothing was seemingly published in the papers about any display of the Auckland half, but its progeny lived on. The Auckland Star took up the story the following year, reporting on 24 May 1877:

This morning we had the pleasure of inspecting an enormous pumpkin, grown by Mr Harding in Mechanics Bay from seed purchased from Mr Brewin. The parent stock was the monster Taranaki pumpkin which weighed 213 pound. It will thus be seen that the climate, and soil of Taranaki is not surpassing that of Auckland, but on the other hand that it only requires a little more energy to produce greater things. The pumpkin weighs 94 pounds [a mere 42.6 kg], and is only nine weeks growth. The circumference is six feet. The monster is on view at Mr Brewin’s shop”.[xii]

That first pumpkin was not the last of Zaccheus Wells’ pumpkin growing exploits, however. The Patea Mail on 16 June 1877 noted he grew an even larger pumpkin the year following his previous famous example, and what was seemingly New Zealand’s first pumpkin to exceed 100 kg in weight:

Mr Z. W. Wells, of Mangarei, Taranaki, who grew the monster pumpkin last year, has again surpassed all other growers. A pumpkin grown by him this season weighs 243 lbs [110.2 kg].” [xiii]

This information was fleshed out in the Waikato Times, on 19 June:

A gentleman informs us… that he had this season grown on one plant two pumpkins from the one seed of the late monster Taranaki pumpkin, to which we alluded last week, and that they weighed together just one pound more, viz, 214 lbs [97.1 kg], and to his mind showing that the plant would probably not bear more, but the pumpkin grown this season by Mr Z W Wells is far in excess of this, weighing by itself 243 lbs”. [xiv]

Strangely, although lighter, it was Wells’ original pumpkin that continued to catch the imagination of the public, and continued to be widely referenced in future reports of large pumpkins. I can only find one mention of a New Zealand pumpkin that weighed more than Wells’ second effort in newspapers all the way through to 1950, and it was again in the 1800s. In April 1883, the Evening Post made mention of a “monster pumpkin weighing 244 lbs [110.7 kg]” – just 1 lb heavier than Wells’ – that “was brought over from Nelson a few days ago. This is said to be the largest vegetable ever seen in Wellington.[xv] For this pumpkin, the grower wasn’t noted, and the 244 lb pumpkin sunk into obscurity, seemingly never mentioned again.  But even as late as 1916, almost 50 years after it was grown – and a year after Wells’ death – it was still Wells’ pumpkin that lived on in people’s memories. Interestingly, new information was being introduced to the story of the pumpkin, including of the seed source and the special food it grew on, though it is difficult to discern at this point what was real, and what was simply the embellishment of a legendary story. A correspondent in the Patea Mail wrote:

With regard to the paragraph which appeared in the “Press” recently anent the large pumpkin on view in Waverley, the Taranaki Herald states that it is a fine pumpkin no doubt but a mere baby compared with one grown by Mr L. Wells [sic] in 1876. This mammoth we knew well. It measured no less than 27ft in in girth round the largest part and weighed 213lbs. It was grown from seed sent out by Messrs Sutton and Sons, of Reading to Mr Wells and was planted near a pigsty where it got the benefit of the whole of the drainage and it happened to be the only pumpkin on the vine”.[xvi]

Not Wells’ pumpkin: “An exhibit of field produce grown at Morrinsville. The Pumpkin in the centre of the photograph weighs 166 lbs”. Press, 1 June 1932.

[i] Tauranga. New Zealander, 23 March 1865, Page 3

[ii] A Matter of Life and Death: Zaccheus William Wells. Taranaki Daily News, 10 January 2015

[iii] The Agricultural Show. Taranaki Herald, 26 March 1870, Page 2

[iv] The Taranaki Agricultural Show, 1870. Taranaki Herald, 30 March 1870, Page 2

[v] Untitled, The Daily Southern Cross, 6 May 1876, Page 5

[vi] Local and General News. Colonist, 9 May 1876, Page 3

[vii] A Whopper, Waikato Times, 9 May 1876, Page 2

[viii] Untitled, Evening Post, 20 May 1876, Page 2

[ix] Evening Post, 26 May 1876, Page 2

[x] Town News., New Zealand Mail, 27 May 1876, Page 15

[xi] Evening Post, 5 June 1876, Page 2

[xii] Auckland Star, 24 May 1877, Page 2

[xiii] Patea Mail, 16 June 1877, Page 2

[xiv] Waikato Times, 19 June 1877, Page 2

[xv] Evening Post, 16 April 1883, Page 2

[xvi] Patea Mail, 31 March 1916, Page 3

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