Gourds are an ancient and unique crop, grown more for their utility than for food. This member of the Cucurbitaceae, or squash family, hails from tropical climates and has been grown in traditional societies all over the world. Even today, gourds are of economic importance both for their utility and beauty when made into craft items, and as a food. Gourds are a pleasure to grow, where space is adequate and can be enjoyed as displays, elaborated into beautiful craft items, or at table.
An illustrious past
Gourds have a most ancient history and are believed to be among the very first plants domesticated and disseminated by humans. Experts argue for multiple points of origin: evidence points to domestication in Asia and Africa. The gourd was no doubt treasured for its versatility as a basis for creation of many useful items. Modern DNA analysis even lends credence to the intriguing possibility that gourds were introduced (much later) to Polynesia from South America along with the sweet potato around 1000 AD.
It’s no wonder this plant was cherished everywhere it was known: what other plant can you use to easily create so many practical as well as ornamental articles? From gourds you can fashion cups, plates, bowls, birdhouses, musical instruments (drums, stringed instruments like a sitar or banjo, flutes), masks, dippers, jewelry, and even fishing floats.
Some of the more bizarre uses to which this obliging vegetable have been put include use in ritual and magic, as a fertility symbol and even for storage of blood alleged to be that of Louis XVI, in an elaborately decorated gourd bearing the date 1793, the year the French king was beheaded. Throughout history, and even before it began, gourds have been drawn on, carved, painted, engraved, burned and cut. Long before anyone grew square watermelons, the Chinese were tying wooden molds around immature gourd fruits, causing them to develop into very specific shapes. Gourds’ position and value in the cosmos has been celebrated in Native American gourd dances among numerous North American tribes. Perhaps because of their obvious usefulness in carrying water, gourds have figured prominently in creation mythologies. And gourds were once collected and used as money on the island of Haiti, albeit only temporarily until a gold standard could be established. The Haitian monetary unit is still called ‘gourde’ to this day.
Gourds offered an eminently practical natural shape. But as humans became more proficient in the crafting of wood, pottery and metal implements, there were other materials suitable for the manufacture of many items formerly made from gourds, although gourds continued to be utilized worldwide. In addition to their utility and ease of fabrication into myriad useful items, gourds offered one more benefit, one which will never go out of fashion: the immature fruits of some kinds are edible and delicious.
The most widely known edible gourd, at least in European and American gardens, is the one Italians call “cucuzza”. It is known by other names as well, including zucca, Italian edible gourd, Tasmania bean, and Guinea bean. This true gourd variety is light green and elongate-cylindrical. Allowed to develop to maturity, the fruits may easily reach three feet or more in length. If the vines are allowed to sprawl on the ground, the fruits will twist and turn as they develop. That doesn’t hurt them a bit, but if the plants are trained up a trellis or into a tree, the fruits will hang from the vines and will be nice and straight. A crop of them looks like baseball bats hanging from the plants’ support. Cucuzza are best when harvested small, under 10 inches in length. They are often sliced, battered or dredged in breadcrumbs or flour, and fried in olive oil. They can also be stewed and are often combined with tomatoes and Italian spices. They are in fact used in any way that a summer squash might be prepared, and the flavor is similar, if richer and more intense. The young leaves are eaten as well, usually in some sort of soup.
There are also the Thai edible gourds, often called bottle gourds. In their native land these are known variously as Ba Nam, Mak Nam, or Nam Tao. Some look like shortened cucuzza, some are nearly pear-shaped and some are nearly spherical with narrow, stem-like necks. All are edible and delicious if harvested when mild and tender, and are used freely in curries, soups and noodle dishes.
Diversity of types
Like most members of the squash family, gourds are capable of a stunning diversity, even within a single species. There are huge-fruited types, tiny ones, round ones, elongated ones, and pear shapes. There are smooth-skinned and warted types. And, while the fruit color is basically green, they come in pale green, dark green, and mottled combinations of both. Here are a few popular true gourd types:
Very large fruited types have been used as baskets or containers. ‘Bushel Basket’ is a squat teardrop shape that can reach two feet in diameter, with ample interior volume for storage.
Warted types are partially or completely covered in rather spherical warts. As with warted squashes, warting on the fruit is not to everyone’s taste, but is often considered attractive and therefore decorative. The color on these types tends to be different from that of other gourd categories, being often a soft blue-green prior to drying. ‘Bule’, a rare French type, is one example; ‘Mayo Bule’ and ‘Verruceuse de Maurice’ are others.
Dipper types are among the most familiar to the average non-gardener, because nearly everyone has seen dipper gourds used at wells in any number of films. They come with a round seed cavity and an elongated neck of varying degrees of width and straightness. A portion of such gourds can be sawed away, leaving a remnant with the very serviceable form of a dipper.
Gourds with such a squat neck as to be more-or-less teardrop shaped are often used to create birdhouses and other craft items. Size can vary from fairly large to rather small, depending upon the preferences of the bird that is being domiciled. Gourds of the correct size are pierced with an opening also sized to the needs of the prospective tenant, and hung in trees or on posts. ‘Birdhouse’ is an obvious example, of course, but depending upon the needs of the species, nearly any gourd might make a good birdhouse.
Finally, there are a number of gourds that are just interesting or bizarre. They may have uses in crafts, depending upon the ingenuity of the crafter. Some intriguing varieties are ‘Maranka’ or ‘Dinosaur’, ‘Apple’, and ‘Hawaiian Dance Mask’.
Gourds are grown in similar conditions to those required by squashes, which means soil as rich as can be had, amended with compost, manure or other organic amendments. In long-season areas, direct seeding will do; where summers are short, transplants may be started indoors about 3 weeks prior to setting out transplants. Remember to handle the transplanting operation carefully: the roots resent the least disturbance. In either case, soak the seeds for a few hours, then drain and sow them an inch deep in pots or out in the garden. Gourds can be fussy about germination, sometimes taking a couple of weeks to sprout. The planting medium should be nice and warm; we favor direct-seeding outdoors a couple of weeks after we sow our squashes, which makes it about 3-4 weeks after last frost of spring.
The plants require full sun and adequate moisture all season long; although they are drought-tolerant once established, better growth and fruit development are obtained with adequate soil moisture. Plant in rows, 8-10 feet apart; have the plants 18 inches to 2 feet apart within the rows. Or plant in hills, 5 seeds per hill, spacing the hills 8-10 feet apart, and thinning to the strongest 2-3 plants per hill. The plants will easily climb fences, trellises, and occasionally small trees, so be sure to allow plenty of space.
A planting of gourds need not be relegated to the back of the garden. The enormous velvety leaves are impressive if not exactly attractive; the white blossoms which open late in the day seem to float above the dark green foliage, gleaming eerily on a moonlit night.
Gourds revel in hot weather and require a fairly long season, requiring about 120 days from sowing to maturity. Allow the gourds to mature on the vines, but in any event, try to harvest the fruits before hard frost. Allow them to dry indoors if necessary, as repeated freezing and thawing often damage the fruits if they are still green and succulent. The fruits may take weeks to fully cure and should be protected from precipitation and sub-freezing temperatures for the duration of the process.
Gourds make excellent material for displays in their mature, green (not dried) state, and, like winter squashes, will often keep for weeks without drying or deteriorating. Fruits will keep their color and any markings during this period. For maximum keeping quality, harvest before a severe frost, as deep freezing damages the fruit and it must then either be dried or it will discolor and potentially even rot.
PESTS: Gourds are heir to all the pests of squashes but seldom seem to be bothered by them for us.
SEED SAVING: Gourds are insect-pollinated out-crossers, like all of their relatives, so for pure seed only one type should be grown at a time, unless bagging and hand-pollination are workable. A minimum population of about 25 plants is adequate for maintaining genetic diversity and avoiding inbreeding depression. Fruits may be harvested as soon as they have developed a very tough outer skin that can barely be marked with your thumbnail. At this stage, the fruits may be cut open and the moist seed scooped out to dry.
Know Your Gourds
There are numerous squash family members that are generically called gourds, including many decorative ones that are actually squashes (Cucurbita pepo) like ‘Tennessee Dancing’, ‘Orange’ or ‘Small Spoon’. Then there are luffas (Luffa species), often called angled- or sponge gourd. They’re all members of a different genus, and all are eaten when young, or made into “sponges” at maturity. But the “true” gourd is Lagenaria siceraria. It is superficially similar to a squash plant, with its huge, velvety leaves and rampant vines. But true gourds have white blooms, not yellow ones like squashes. These bloom at night, unlike squash blossoms which bloom in the morning, and are pollinated mainly by moths, but seldom by bees, which do not typically fly at night.
Birdhouses for Purple Martins
Native Americans made gourd houses for these beneficial birds for centuries before Europeans arrived. Start with tear-drop shaped gourds, 9-12 inches in diameter. Select only thick-walled, sound and sturdy fruits, discarding any that seem soft or weak. Drill four drainage holes 1/4-inch across in the bottom of each, and one across the neck near the stem end, to run a rope through from which to hang the finished house. Cut a round opening about 2 inches in diameter at the equator of each gourd. Soak gourds for at least 20 minutes in a copper sulfate solution if desired — 1 pound copper sulfate in 5 gallons of water. (Copper sulfate acts as a preservative.) Gourds may also be painted with exterior grade paint if desired. Your birdhouses so treated may last a decade or more. Or you could use untreated gourds and replace them every year or two as needed. Martins are colony breeders, so string a minimum of 6-8 houses on stout rope or cable. Support the cable on a post or pair of posts 10-15 feet high and at least 40 feet from trees or buildings. Martins are migratory in most of the country; after the birds leave in the fall, lower the empty houses, clean, inspect and discard any weak gourds, and store indoors until the following spring. “Your” martins will return faithfully year after year once the colony is established.
Gourds must be cured for most craft uses. Curing means that the fruit has dried completely without marked decay, leaving the woody shell, which is the part that is used. At this point the shells are apt to be discolored and may be cleaned by vigorous scrubbing with a teflon-type scrubbing pad, after first soaking the dried gourd for 30 minutes. Once dried and cleaned, the gourds are ready for use. The shells of gourds are similar to and are as durable as wood if protected from moisture. They can also be up to a half-inch thick, and may be pierced, drilled, cut, carved, burned or painted. (Gourd dust or pulp can be irritating to some people. Always wear a mask when sawing, sanding or filing your gourds.)
Here are some simple gourd projects: make a water drum, similar to designs used in Asia and in Mayan culture. Take a gourd, cut it in half. Cut a smaller gourd in half. Fill the large gourd with water, float the smaller gourd in the water, blossom-end up. Strike the floating gourd to create a pleasing bass sound.
Try sawing the extreme bottom section from really large-fruited types to create saucers. Or cut a deeper section for a natural bowl. Sand the interior of your piece to remove loose fibers and yield a durable inner surface.
Randel A. Agrella has overseen rare seed production at Baker Creek since 2005. He writes and lectures extensively, and owns and operates AbundantAcres.net, which has grown and shipped strictly heirloom, chemical-free veggie starts and plants, since 2004. He has recently relocated to Maine, and you can follow the development of his organic micro-farm, Parsnippity Farm, on Facebook.