Gourds provide colorful and interesting shapes
Recent research into bottle gourds found
throughout the Americas has resolved a long-standing mystery.
Initially, archaeologists believed that the African bottle gourd
probably floated across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. But
after examining its DNA, they found that the samples matched
those found in Asia, not Africa. They concluded that early
migrants from Asia brought the bottle gourd to the Americas.
Dozens of gourd cultivars
A member of the Cucurbitaceae family, the same as
cucumbers, melons, squash and pumpkins, the gourd is the hollow
dried shell of a fruit. There are three general types: the
cucurbita, or ornamental gourd; the lagenaria, or large
utilitarian gourd; and the luffa, or vegetable sponge.
The cucurbita include the colorful, variously
shaped ornamental gourds used frequently in autumn arrangements.
These plants produce large orange or yellow blossoms that bloom
in the daytime. Cultivars include 'Aladdin's Turban,' 'Striped
Crown of Thorns,' 'Bicolor Pear,' 'Cannon Ball,' 'Basket Ball,'
'White Egg' and 'Small Spoon.'
The lagenaria group includes the martin or
birdhouse, bottle and dipper gourds. These plants produce white
blossoms that bloom at night. Lagenaria gourds are green on the
vine and turn brown or tan, with thick, hard shells when dry.
Cultivars include 'Bird House,' 'Long Handle
Dipper,' 'Caveman's Club,' 'Swan' and 'Martin House.'
Luffas have an outer shell that is removed easily
to expose a tough, fibrous interior that can be used as a
sponge. They produce numerous vines with yellow blossoms and
have the longest growing season of all gourds.
Gourds on a Trellis
Photo: Nancy Knauss
The Gourd is a warm weather crop
Gourds are warm-weather crops with a long growing
season of 100-180 days.
Start seeds indoors four weeks before
transplanting outside. Plant seeds in individual containers
because the roots will not tolerate being disturbed during
transplanting. Scarify (scratch the surface of) luffa seeds to
germinate. Plant seeds or seedlings in full sun and well-drained
soil after all danger of frost has passed and soil and air
temperatures have warmed. Space 2 feet apart in rows 5 feet
apart. Gourd seeds can rot before germinating if planted in
cold, wet soil.
Gourds are vigorous growers and will readily
climb a trellis, fence or arbor. Luffa plants require a sturdy
support to keep the developing fruit off the ground, which will
discolor the gourd. Water the plants consistently and fertilize
them when the vines begin to spread, about three to five weeks
Each gourd plant produces male and female flowers
before it sets fruit. Bees pollinate day-blooming gourds, and
moths, night-blooming gourds.
Gourds have a long drying period
Gourds are ready for harvest when the stems dry
and turn brown. Cut gourds from the vine with a few inches of
the stem attached. After harvesting, clean with soap and water,
dry them and apply rubbing alcohol to the surface.
Gourds can take one to six months to dry
completely, depending on type and size. The outside will look
dry within a week, but it takes a minimum of four weeks for the
inside to cure. Periodically turn the fruit to discourage
shriveling and promote even drying. The gourd is cured when it
becomes light -- weighing a few ounces -- and you can hear the
seeds rattling inside. A gourd that is not completely dry inside
will give off a bitter smell when cut.
When dried, the shell has a wooden appearance. It
is essentially cellulose that has no grain, varying in thickness
from paper-thin to well over an inch. This hard outer surface
lends itself to artistic carvings and other decoration.
After curing, you can smooth and polish the
surface with very fine steel wool or sandpaper. Then, treat it
with rubbing alcohol, allow it to dry, and wax or shellac it for
the final finish. Or, you can paint, dye, wax, carve or decorate
cured gourds before finishing them.
If you want to cut open a dried gourd to make a
bowl, use either a craft knife or a jigsaw. This can be
challenging, however, and the resulting dust it creates can be
hazardous to your respiratory system. Be sure to take
precautions, and cut in a well-ventilated area.
Photo: Nancy Knauss
Luffa gourds need specific harvesting and
processing techniques to produce high-quality sponges. Harvest
the fruit when the outer shell is dry, the gourd is lightweight
and you can hear the seeds rattling inside. Remove the stem end
of the gourd and shake out the seeds from the center cavity.
Soak in warm water until the outer skin softens to the point
where it can be removed easily. Then, soak the fibrous sponge in
a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water to obtain the
desirable creamy-white appearance. Rinse in clear water and
allow to dry before using.
For more information about cultivating and using
gourds, contact the
American Gourd Society. If you want to learn about
decorating your own gourd or to buy finished products, check out
Meadowbrook Farm in Carlisle, Pa.