The Weird and Wonderful World of Gourds
You can find fun gourds at markets in the fall. So what's with these bumpy, weird-looking squash? Are pumpkins a gourd? Can you eat a gourd? How do you grow gourds? See different types of "gourdgeous" gourds—from bottle gourds to snake gourds to luffas.
What Are Gourds?
Gourds (Cucurbitaceae) are among the oldest cultivated plants. They were the early water bottles of the Egyptians (2200 or 2400 B.C.), and were traditionally used as utensils, storage containers, and dippers by indigenous peoples in North America.
Today, these garden novelties can be used for many reasons from ornamental displays in autumn and on the Thanksgiving table to birdhouses to luffa sponges in the bath (yes, luffas are gourds!). Gourds can also be used as musical instruments (shakes, maracas, drums), vases, and bowls.
There are hundreds of species that come in all sorts of strange shapes and sizes. The smallest can be the size of a marble and the largest over 200 pounds!
What's the Difference Between Gourds and Pumpkins?
Botanically speaking, there's really no difference between gourds, squash, and pumpkins. They all belong to the family Cucurbitaceae and are all frost-tender, meaning they won't make it through chilly temperatures.
- "Gourds" usually refers to the hard-shelled, non-edible cucurbit fruits suitable for decorative ornaments or utensils.
- "Squash" and "pumpkins" can be either edible or ornamental, but they are soft-shelled and won't last as long (unless cured, like winter squash).
I was at a farmer's market recently and brought some gourds home. Aren’t these fabulous?
Types of Gourds
Gourds come in so many shapes and colors. There are four main types of gourds that you'll encounter to grow from seed or purchase as decor:
- The Cucurbita types of gourds are the most popular. An American native, these gourds come in many unusual shapes and textures: smooth, warty, plain, patterned, ridged, striped. Cucurbita pepo are the cute, colorful little ornamental gourds that make good decorations.
Image: Cucurbita pepo
- Hardshell gourds are Lagenaria siceraria, which means "drinking vessel," since that is one of the many uses. Speckled swan gourds, bottle gourds, dipper gourds, penguin or powderhorn gourds, and even one called caveman's club are all Lagenarias. Hard-shelled gourds will last for several years and have been grown for over five thousand years for use as containers and utensils, and the immature gourds are edible. Even today, these types have many uses, including birdhouses, storage vessels, dippers, or ornaments.
Image: Bottle gourds, Lagenaria siceraria.
- Luffa aegyptiaca or L. cylindrical is the well-known bath sponge! Many people think Luffas are sponges from the sea, but these vegetable sponges are actually related to cucumbers. Left to mature and dry, the outer shell is scraped off and the scratchy inner fiber makes a great scrubby!
Check out this "Grow your own Luffa Sponge" video. It's about five minutes long, but worth the watch—we've never seen anything like it! As different and unusual as a luffa gourd.
Image: Luffa cylindrical. Credit: Aimpol Buranet/Shutterstock
The weird and wonderful "snake gourd" (Trichosanthes cucumerina var. anguina) is a member of the pumpkin family (Cucurbitaceae) but has seeds similar to its cousin the watermelon (Citrullus lanatus).
Long and wriggly (like a snake!), this eccentric gourd is edible when young and tender though not especially flavorful. Once fully mature, snake gourds are tough enough to be turned into didgeridoos!
What's really interesting is the flower of the snake gourd, which opens at night! White and strongly scented, the flowers are moth-pollinated!
Credit: Kew Gardens
Image: Snake gourds being used for ornamental autumn display at Newfields' gardens. Credit: C. Boeckmann
Tips for Growing Gourds
You can buy mature gourds for their seeds, dry them out, and plant in the spring! Essentially, we treat them the same as winter squash.
We have grown speckled swan gourds in the past. Since they take about 120 days to grow to maturity, we started the seeds six weeks ahead indoors and transplanted them outside in the spring after danger of frost had passed.
It's really best to prepare the soil a few months in advance with lots of rich organic matter such as compost so that the soil settles down by spring planting. If you do use a synthetic fertilizer, use a slow-release fertilizer.
Also, here's a great tip: Powdery mildew will often settle on gourd leaves. To counteract powdery mildew, make a simply spray solution of 1 cup skim milk (ONLY skim) and 5 cups of water. Spray plants every week for 3 weeks until leaves develop.
We kept the plants covered with floating row covers for as long as we could contain them to protect them from cucumber beetles. They then began to spread.
Do not crowd gourds! They are notorious space hogs with vines that can extend out forty feet from the center of the plant.
We pulled the vines off the deer fence daily; they really wanted to climb something. They can grow to a height of 6 to 10 feet. I recommend a rugged trellis or arbor around a garden bed—think PVC pipes and netting. You can plant some other vegetables within the gourds while the gourds grow around the trellis around your bed.
They are such rampant growers that they will overwhelm a flimsy structure and we thought they could easily take down our plastic mesh deer fence!
Since all gourds belong to the Cucurbit family, I was expecting our swan gourds to have squash-like flowers. Imagine my surprise when they produced huge white flowers that are not like a squash blossom at all. It seemed like we had weeks of only male blossoms before we started to see female flowers, with their tiny immature fruit at the base. I have learned that if you clip off the growing tip of the vines when they reach about ten feet long, it will encourage more female blossoms to form while keeping the plants to a more manageable size.
As with squash, you can help your gourds produce bigger, healthier fruit by pollinating their flowers by hand.
Once the fruits are set they begin to grow fast! Dipper gourds with extra-long necks can be trained to grow around a broom handle to make an interesting twisted shape or you can even tie them into a knot!
Harvesting and Curing Gourds
Ornamental gourds can be picked as soon as their stems turn brown and the tendrils next to them are dry. Luffas should be left on the vine until the stem is dry and the gourds are turning brown at both ends. The seeds will rattle inside when you shake them. Peel off the outer skin and the inner fiber should be tan and dry.
Hardshell gourds should be left in the garden to dry out. Unfortunately, any colorful patterns—like on the speckled swan gourd—will be lost when the gourd is dry.
The skin will fade and discolor and even show signs of mold. As long as the shell does not rot, it will continue to dry inside. It can take 3 to 6 months for them to dry completely, depending on how thick the shell is. Wait until the gourd is totally dry before you craft it into a birdhouse, dipper, or whatever else you decide to make.
Our talented friend Camille transformed this gourd using decoupage and paint!
Here is another gourd from a farmers' market that was made into a birdhouse. They're wonderful as homes for purple martins and other birds.
The possibilities are endless so next year give gourdgeous gourds a try!