The quintessential symbol of autumn is a crop that dates back to more than 7,500 years. It's true home is Mexico.

We're talking pumpkins, which remind us of harvest time and the bounty it brings. Some of the gourd family member are made into pies for Thanksgiving dinner, and people have been making jack-o'-lanterns at Halloween for centuries. Often pumpkins are raised for cattle food.

For more than a month we have seen mature orange pumpkins in gardens, fields and farmers' markets. A pumpkin is a fruit because it contains seeds, but also it is pegged as a nutritious orange vegetable for humans.

It is low in calories but rich in vitamins and minerals and antioxidants that may boost your immune system, protect your eyesight, and promote heart and skin health.

Add canned pumpkin to almost any dish to enhance flavor and nutrition. Some people even add it to their oatmeal. Pumpkin seeds make a healthy snack. The hulls are a good source of fiber. The seeds contain high amounts of phosphorus. They are easy to prepare. After you remove the seeds from inside the pumpkin, rinse and dry them. Save a few seeds in an envelope if you want to grow some pumpkins next year. Spread the rest on a baking sheet, sprinkle them with a seasoning of choice, and lightly bake about 200 degrees for close to 15 minutes.

The harvest of pumpkins takes place close to four months after the seeds are planted, when the leaves are dry and the fruit becomes a rich orange.

Cut the pumpkin from the vine with pruning shears, leaving about 3 to 4 inches of stem on the fruit. Pumpkins decay quickly if the stems are broken off rather then cut. After harvesting, set pumpkins in the sun for a week or so to harden their outer skins, and then store in a cool, dry place.

Jim Gilbert's observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977, and he is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.