Fall Gourds

Storage containers, bowls, utensils, tools, masks, musical instruments, jewelry, dolls, flotation devices, toys, wheels, sieves, food, birdhouses – the list goes on and on for the many functional, spiritual, and decorative uses of the humble gourd. At this time of year, gourds abound at farmer’s markets, the grocery store, and even the backyard for some dedicated growers. This oddly shaped fruit has a colorful history – and deserves a bit of spotlight.

Origin

While not a common backyard plant today, it’s believed that gourds may be the earliest domesticated plant in North America. A previous theory held that the bottle gourd originated in Africa, carried over to the Americas via the Atlantic Ocean. But as the American Gourd Society reports, archeological and DNA evidence shows them coming from Asia more than 10,000 years ago via the Bering Strait – either by boat, by floating across the water, or carried by hand via a land bridge, a wide plain thought to have existed that connected the two continents. Today, there are three main types of cultivated gourds; Cucurbita, Luffa, and Lagenaria, all belonging to the Cucurbitaceae family.

The Cucurbita genus, which gardeners will recognize from a variety of squash and pumpkins, also includes ornamental gourds, often called “soft-shelled gourds,” that are small, colorful, and come in odd, quirky shapes. Commonly used for fall decorations and arranged on mantles, porches, and festive tablescapes, they can also be carved into small luminaries like jack-o-lanterns. These varieties of gourds begin to fade and spoil within a few months.

The Luffa genus includes both angled and smooth luffa gourds, the latter of which are used as natural sponges because they have a large circumference and are easier to peel. While it may be hard to believe, you can also eat this fibrous scrubber if you harvest it before it matures. After peeling off the many hard ridges, chop, stir-fry, or braise the vegetable as you would zucchini. Just be careful not to overcook this tender gourd. High in fiber and vitamin C, luffa is used in Chinese medicine as an anti-inflammatory and blood purifier.

The Lagenaria genus, a name that derives from the Latin word for bottle, features hard-shelled gourds that include the bottle and dipper gourds along with other varieties that come in many shapes and sizes. If grown and cured properly, these gourds can essentially last forever. A common gourd grown ib home gardens, the bottle gourd, known also as the birdhouse gourd, offers a graceful hourglass shape that makes an excellent home for Purple Martins and other garden birds.

Growing and Harvesting

Like winter squash, gourds need a long growing season and lots of space. They can take anywhere from 100 to 180 days to reach full maturity and have long sprawling vines. If you live in an area with a shorter growing season, you can start seeds indoors several weeks before the last frost date. Sow seeds 1-inch deep in individual pots, provide a strong light source, and keep the soil warm and moist.

When seedlings are well-established and night temperatures stay above 50 degrees, you can harden them off. Transfer to an area of the garden with full sun and space to ramble or along a sturdy fence or trellis. For best production, you may need to hand pollinate; in the evenings, use a small paintbrush to spread pollen from the male flower to the female blossom.

Birdhouse gourds are ready to be harvested when the connecting stem has dried and turned brown after the first frost has killed the vine. Leave them outside in the garden throughout winter and spring or harvest and move them to a shed or barn until dried. {According to Amish Gourds, leaving them on the vine to dry usually produces better results.} Weather, be it rain or freezing temperatures, won’t affect the drying process – in fact, commercial growers don’t pick their gourds from the fields until they are fully dry.

If you do harvest your gourds in the fall, cut them from the vine with a few inches of stem remaining – don’t break the stem off from the gourd – and make sure they spend the winter somewhere with good air circulation. They will get moldy, which is a natural part of the process. Hang them from the rafters of a shed or set them on a wire shelf on the porch. After several months, the gourds will be brown and very light in weight, and the seeds inside will usually rattle. Discard any gourds that have become wrinkled or soft.

Preparing Your Gourd

Clean the outside skin of your gourd by wetting the gourd with water and scrubbing the skin off with a dull knife, bristle brush, or steel wool. For stubborn skins, the American Gourd Association suggests burying the gourd in a tub of damp potting soil and leaving it there for two to five days. Remove, shake off the soil, rinse off with a hose, and then scrape clean with a green scrubby sponge or copper scouring pad. Murphy’s Oil Soap and a scraper can help get into nooks and crannies.

Let dry, and if desired sand it with sandpaper to a smooth finish. You can now carve, paint, wax, or shellac your gourd.

decorated-gourd-wigglesworth

Gourd Birdhouse

If you want to make a birdhouse, cut a hole in the gourd with a drill and hole saw attachment. If you wish to make a house for Purple Martins, an Eastern bird that nests almost entirely in human-made nests, create a hole between 1 3/4 and 2 1/4 inches. You may need to use a small knife or sandpaper to smooth out your hole.

If they don’t fall out on their own, use a spoon to clean out the seeds. Make sure to wear a mask as dried gourds can be dusty. Don’t worry about getting it perfect; the birds will clean out the rest. Drill a few holes in the top to string wire for hanging and a few holes in the bottom for drainage. Paint or use a water-based varnish on your house – or hang it up as is to blend into the garden naturally.

Fun Facts About Gourds

This list comes from the Cornell University of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Learn more at gardening.cals.cornell.edu.

  • Gourd skins were used to replace missing parts of skulls back in the Neolithic times as part of primitive surgery.
  • White gourd juice has a unique smoky taste, making it a common beverage retailed in China.
  • The standard coin in Haiti is called the “gourde” because back in 1807, gourds were one of the most useful items in peasant life, so the governor of Haiti collected thousands of gourds as the country’s “treasury.”
  • Many people used gourds as medicine to cure coughs and as an antidote for certain poisons. The juice was used to prevent balding and to cure jaundice. An infusion of seeds was used to cure chills and headaches.
  • In Africa, large gourds were used as cradles and baby baths.
  • Sherlock Holmes’s famous calabash pipe, like many native pipes, was fashioned from the neck of a gourd.
  • In India, gourds served as floating buoys to teach children how to swim.
  • Traditionally, East Africans gave gourds as wedding gifts. They usually had stories carved on them that illustrated people, places, things, and events relevant to the person receiving the gift.

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