Out of Your Gourd
Hard-shelled gourds, along with pumpkins, squash, and ornamental gourds, all belong to the cucurbit family. Unlike their soft-skinned cousins, however, hard-shelled gourds have a very tough outer surface that takes on the characteristics of wood when dried.
Gourds are among the first crops ever cultivated. They are thought to have originated in Africa and spread to the Americas on ocean currents, their seeds protected by the fruits’ water-resistant skin. Ancient man gathered gourds from the wild 10,000 years ago not for food but for the useful items that could be made from their shells. Small, round gourds were made into bowls, cups, and floats for fishing nets. Long gourds with bulbous ends became spoons or pipes, and large, thick-skinned ones were used to haul water and store food. Gourds have served as musical instruments, armor, jewelry, and even currency. In some cultures, they took on religious significance and became objects of art embellished with carvings, wood burnings, and paint.
Hard-shelled gourds can be grown anywhere that pumpkins can and have about the same requirements—a sunny spot, a long growing season, and plenty of food and water. Some growers in the North start seeds indoors in peat pots four weeks before setting them out in the garden. If you sow seeds directly in the ground, plant six to eight in each hill and then thin them to three or four. Hills should be spaced eight feet apart and prepared with plenty of manure and compost. Harvest gourds when the stems have completely dried and turned brown. Scrub them clean with soap and water and then wipe the skin with a 10% bleach solution to prevent mold. Dry them in a warm, dark room for one to six months, depending on their size. When completely dried, a gourd will be lightweight, with its seeds heard rattling inside; it can then be waxed or varnished.
Today, artists still enjoy working with gourds, and their work appears in gourd shows and craft fairs throughout the country. Varieties can be grown that resemble penguins, snakes, and swans, or that have the perfect shape to be turned into ladles and birdhouses. Now, we think that’s using your gourd.