Gourds Yield Utilitarian, Decorative Fruit

Posted: November 21, 2014

Just as humans domesticated animals thousands of years ago, they also cultivated plants to meet their needs. Among the oldest domesticated plants, one stands out for its distinction of being utilitarian, decorative and, in general, inedible: the gourd.

Many cultures worldwide, including Native Americans, have cultivated gourds for thousands of years. There are a few varieties harvested for consumption today, mostly in Asia, and smoky-tasting white gourd juice is a common beverage sold in China. However, gourds are grown primarily for use as utensils and storage containers. You can find ornaments, stringed musical instruments and drums made from gourds. In the United States, many people craft birdhouses for purple martins out of gourds.

Evidence suggests that early man domesticated the bottle gourd, a plant native to Africa, for use as a container around 10,000 BC. Some experts think that the shape of today’s clay pottery is modeled after the shape of certain gourd varieties.

Recent research into bottle gourds found throughout the Americas has resolved a long-standing mystery. Initially, archeologists believed that the African bottle gourd probably floated across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. But after examining the bottle gourd's 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 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 of gourds: 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. Luffas produce numerous vines with yellow blossoms, and have the longest growing season of all gourds.;

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 gourd 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 two feet apart in rows five 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 after planting.

Each gourd plant produces both male and female flowers before it sets fruit. Bees pollinate day-blooming gourds, and moths, night-blooming gourds.

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 the gourds 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 their 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 of a gourd 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 the hardened shell 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, for example, 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.

Luffa's Special Needs
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 luffa gourds 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.

Contact Information

Susan Biddle, Master Gardener
  • Allegheny County