A few days ago my granddaughter saw some ornamental gourds and asked me, “What good are gourds?” Even though she was politely and patiently listening to my geeky horticultural answer, I know she probably learned more about gourds than she wanted. Have you ever wondered about gourds and their value?
First of all, what is a gourd? Gourds are part of the cucurbit (squash) family and have hard-skinned fruit. There are two main categories of gourds: ornamental and bottle or utility.
Ornamental gourds come from the Cucurbita genus and are closely related to squash and pumpkins. They are used primarily as autumn decorations. They are not considered useful or edible, having only a small amount of flesh that is tasteless.
Ornamental gourds have fruit with woody, angular stems and come in a variety of interesting shapes and colors, including green, orange, creamy white, gold and yellow. Many also have warty or horned skin. Their unique ugliness makes them beautiful oddities. The names for the different types of ornamental gourds are often descriptive of their shapes or colors, such as Alladin, Egg, Orange, Warted, Apple, Flat Striped, Pear, Bell, Malabar Melon, Spoon, Crown of Thorns, Miniature and Turks Turban.
Today, consumers can buy realistic fake ornamental gourds at the craft store. However, if you eschew this approach, real gourds can still purchased along with pumpkins and winter squash at local farmer’s markets and grocery stores. When ornamental gourds are harvested fully mature and then “cured” in a warm, dry spot for two to three weeks, they may keep all the way through the fall and winter holidays. If they are not properly cured to harden their skins before being displayed, they will rot sooner. It is advisable to periodically check your gourds and discard any that become soft or moldy.
Bottle gourds are members of the Lagenaria genus in the cucurbit family. They have a thin very hard skin or “shell.” Bottle gourds are usually dried completely, cleaned out, and used for making utensils, a variety of useful vessels, and musical instruments. These gourds have smooth narrow stems and are tan or brownish in color. There are numerous types of bottle gourds, typically named for their either their shape or common use, such as Apple, Banana, Basketball, Snake, Birdhouse (a.k.a. Purple Martin), Bottle (a.k.a. Dumbell), Bushel, Canon Ball, Canteen, Caveman’s Club, Corsican Flat, Dipper, Dolphin (a.k.a. Maranka), Goose Neck, Kettle, Longissima, Powderhorn (a.k.a. Calabash) and Tobacco Box.
Along with their numerous practical utilitarian uses, dried bottle gourds are also popular for crafting and are often decorated by painting, carving or burning their hard shells. In many states, including Washington, enthusiasts have formed gourd societies, and the American Gourd Society publishes “The Gourd Magazine.”
Bottle gourds are prized for their usefulness as vessels or for creating works of art, but some types, such as the Italian Edible or Cucuzzi gourd, are considered desirable for eating. When harvested for eating, they are picked when the fruit is immature, tender and green.
Other things to know about gourds:
▪ The hard shells of bottle gourds contain natural chemicals that make them hard and long-lasting. During a bottle gourd’s very long drying period, its shell often develops surface molds. The dust from carving, sanding, cleaning, drilling or cutting bottle gourds and the fumes from burning the shells is considered harmful due to these natural chemicals and microorganisms. If you decide to take up gourd crafting, be aware of this danger and wear suitable dusk masks or respirators to protect yourself.
▪ Luffa gourds are members of the Luffa genus in the cucurbit family. Their fruit is used to make luffa sponges. To do this, ripe fruit that resemble large zucchinis are soaked in water for several days to soften their skin. Then the skin and the inner pulp and seeds are removed, leaving behind the fibrous part of the flesh. This natural cellulose fiber is washed and then dried in the sun.
▪ The longest squash ever grown was 14 feet, 11 inches.
▪ Some of heaviest gourds are Giant Zucca gourds, weighing in at 50 to 100 pounds with the heaviest ever grown weighing 150 pounds!
Marianne C. Ophardt is a retired horticulturist for Washington State University Benton County Extension.