Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Gourds are believed to be one of the world's oldest cultivated plants. Fragments of gourds were even found in an Egyptian tomb dating back to 2200-2400 B.C.!
Many cultures found that gourds could be dried and used as useful items such as storage containers, dippers, spoons, and bowls. Some even used gourds to fashion musical instruments. Although it was far more common to dry mature gourds and fashion a useful object from it, some cultures found that a few species of gourds were good to eat.
All gourds belong to the Curcurbitaceae family, which includes familiar vegetables like cucumbers, winter and summer squash, pumpkins and melons. They grow as vines and like other members of this family, produce separate male and female flowers on the same plant. Gourds fall into one of three groups: the curcurbita, the lagenaria, and the luffa.
The curcurbita group are all species of the genera Curcurbita, and are also referred to as the ornamental gourds. These gourds come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and colors. They produce yellow flowers that are pollinated during the day by insects, much like other members of the Curcurbitaceae. The fruits are dried and are often used as fall decorations.
The lagenaria group are all species in the genera Lagenaria, and commonly are called bottle or dipper gourds. They grow in many different shapes and sizes. They produce white flowers that open at night and are pollinated by moths. These gourds have a wide range of utilitarian uses, from containers to bowls, spoons, and birdhouses. When dried, their shell is wood-like and easily painted, carved, stained, or otherwise decorated.
A unique gourd in the lagenaria group is the Zucca (Lagenaria siceraria), a gourd cultivated in Sicily as a food source. They were grown commercially in the 1930's through the 1950's in California and British Columbia. These gourds grow to monster proportions, typically reaching sixty to one hundred pounds. They have no taste or flavor of their own, but take up added colors and flavors easily, and could be used to extend the life of products like jams and jellies, or even specially flavored as a stand-alone product. Zuccas disappeared from commercial cultivation in the 1950's, but interest in heirloom crops has renewed people's interest in growing the Zucca in home and heritage demonstration gardens.
The luffa group are all species in the genus Luffa, and also known as sponge gourds. They require the longest growing season of all the gourds. Unlike the other groups, after this type of gourd is dried, the useful part is the interior, not the shell. The shell is discarded and the interior is used as a sponge.
Generally speaking, all gourds have similar cultural requirements. They are warm season crops, so they should be planted after the soil has warmed and all danger of frost has passed. They all require a growing season of at least one hundred days, so starting seeds indoors is usually a good idea, even a necessity.
Gourds are vigorous growers, and need plenty of water during the growing season. Fertilizer will encourage growth, but choose one with lower nitrogen than phosphorus and potassium if possible. Too much nitrogen will encourage lots of leaves and vine to grow, but may reduce the amount of fruiting.
Like other members of the Curcurbitaceae family, gourds produce separate male and female flowers. Typically the male flowers appear first, and are held above the foliage on long stems. Female flowers appear later and are held down among the foliage. They are easily identified by the presence of a small undeveloped gourd at the base of the flower.
Gourds are ready for harvest when their stems are dry and brown. For best quality, harvest gourds before frost, although gourds that are mature with a hard shell will survive a light frost. After harvesting, wash gourds with soap and water, then wipe them down with rubbing alcohol.
Luffa gourds are harvested when their shell is brown and dry, and need no further drying. In fact, they are typically soaked in water after harvesting to remove the outer shell, exposing the sponge inside. Some people soak the sponge in a 10% bleach solution to lighten the sponge's color somewhat.
Completelydrying gourds can take up to six months or more. Choose a location that ideally is warm with good air circulation. Damp cold locations encourage decay. Check the gourds often, and wipe off any mold that may develop on the surface, but discard any that develop soft spots, as they probably decaying.
Curcurbita or lagenaria gourds can be waxed or coated with shellac to preserve and enhance their appearance. Lagenaria gourds have an ideal surface for carving and decorating.
For more information on the history, traditional uses, and how-to in handcrafting gourds, check out the American Gourd Society at www.americangourdsociety.org. There is a local group, the Illinois Gourd Society (www.americangourdsociety.org/ilgs) that recently hosted their 2007 Annual Festival of Gourds in Clinton, Illinois. Their members shared a wide variety of gourd crafting ideas at this event. Check out their website for more upcoming events this fall.