What member of the plant kingdom produces fruit that can hold beverages, float fishing nets, house crickets and make music? It’s the gourd, of the Cucurbitacea, the large family that ranges from the salad cucumber (Cucumis sativus) and melon (C. melo) to winter squash and pumpkins (C. maxima). This versatile plant likely has held a longer association with humans than any other.
The plant most of us think of when we say gourd is Lagenaria siceraria, which originated in tropical Africa and India. Its widespread cultivation tells us a great deal about how useful this plant was. For some time, historians believed that these gourds reached North America by floating across the ocean. Recent evidence suggests, though, that gourd seeds were probably carried by the first human inhabitants of this continent when they came across the Bering Strait from Asia.
In parts of Asia the bottle gourd, as L. siceraria is commonly called, has long been prized as a drinking vessel. In
Japan these were filled with sake. Beautifully lacquered gourds have been carefully preserved and passed down in families
for hundreds of years. Bottle gourd flesh is also an ingredient in Japanese cooking; thin shavings are taken from the immature fruit and dried. The resulting kanpyo is simmered in flavorful broth and can be used in sushi. In southern Chinese cuisine, the bottle gourd, or hulu, is included in stir-fries and soups. Some part of the bottle gourd is eaten in the countries of Central America, Italy, Tanzania and India.
Gourds have long been used in arts and crafts. In China, small gourds are traditionally carved into cricket cages. On the African continent, a wide variety of instruments have been fashioned from dried gourds, including the ballifone, drums and shakers of all kinds. In his article “Gourd Banjos: From Africa to the Appalachians” George R. Gibson makes a persuasive case for the evolution of the present-day banjo from a gourd-based prototype created and played by African slaves. (See dhyatt.com/history for the full article.) Since medieval times, the Indian sitar has been fashioned from lagenaria fruit. A large gourd forms the resonating chamber of this elegant fretted instrument.
Today, gourd crafting is a popular hobby, pursued by gardeners growing and drying their own and hobbyists purchasing dried gourds from specialty growers. Modern crafters use gourds to create bowls and spoons, vases and lidded containers, jewelry and decorative pieces.
Growing and Drying Gourds
In general, gourds benefit from a long, hot growing season, which is why most commercial growers in the United States are located in southern states. Farther north, it’s best to start seeds indoors and grow them for a few weeks to a month in peat pots, which minimizes disturbance to the plant’s roots when transplanting. Gourds thrive in full sun and rich soil. They’ll eventually take up more space than you could ever anticipate. Economy of space is probably one of the reasons they’re sometimes trellised, although suspension of the vines also results in unblemished and possibly more elongated fruit. A major pollinator of L. siceraria is Manduca quinquemaculata, the sphinx moth, which is perhaps more familiar to many gardeners in its juvenile stage—the tomato hornworm.
In areas prone to early frosts, harvest time is often dictated by the weather, as the fruit won’t continue to ripen once the vines are killed. Gourd fruits generally begin to lose their greenish cast as they ripen. Once harvested, the drying process can take many months, depending upon the conditions within your drying space. A well-ventilated garage or basement can be ideal. Light isn’t necessary, but drier air is better than moist air. Don’t be too concerned if your gourds have areas of what appears to be low-growing mold; moving them to more light may help decrease this. You’ll know when they’re dry from the hollow sound they make when tapped, and also by the rattling of their seeds.