Good Gourd! What’s with the bumpy, weird-looking decorative squash? We get many questions about growing and curing our gourds. (Did you know that the luffa sponge is a gourd?) See different types of gourds to plant in the spring—or, find some “gourdgeous” gourds this fall and save their seeds!
What are Gourds?
Gourds are among the oldest cultivated plants. They were the early water bottles of the Egyptians, and have been used for utensils, storage containers, and dippers for centuries.
Botanically speaking, there’s really no difference between gourds, squash, and pumpkins. They all belong to the family Cucurbitaceae. And they’re all frost-tender. But gourds are the common name for hard-shelled, non-edible cucurbit fruits suitable for decorative ornaments or utensils. Some of the squashes and pumpkins are ornamental, too, but they are soft-shelled so they won’t lat as long.
You can find fun gourds at markets in the fall. Aren’t these fabulous? You can buy them for the seeds, dry them out, and plant in the spring!
Types of Gourds
Goards come in so many shapes and colors. There three general types of gourds:
- Cucurbita pepo are the cute, colorful little ornamental gourds that make good decorations. They are soft-shelled gourds that are closely related to squash. An American native, Cucurbita types come in unusual shapes and textures: smooth, warty, plain, patterned, ridged, striped. There are also many shape and color variations including: the apple, pear, bell, egg, bicolor, or orange. Fruits are not usually useful more than one season.
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 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 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
Tips on Growing Gourds
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 they 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 ruggled 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 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 so I was surprised 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.
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 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! The possibilities are endless so next year give gourdgeous gourds a try!