Gourds: Embracing the Unique and Versatile Garden Delights

Gourds, the ancient fruits of the Cucurbitaceae family, have a rich history. Dating back to 2200 or 2400 B.C., they were initially used by the Egyptians as water bottles and later adopted as utensils and storage containers by indigenous peoples in North America. Today, gourds have evolved into fascinating garden novelties that serve a variety of purposes, from dazzling ornamental displays in the autumn to charming additions to the Thanksgiving table. They can even be transformed into musical instruments like maracas, vases, and bowls. With hundreds of species available, gourds come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from as small as a marble to weighing over 200 pounds.

Gourds, Pumpkins, and Squash: A Family Resemblance

Botanically, there is no real distinction between gourds, pumpkins, and squash. All belonging to the Cucurbitaceae family, these frost-tender fruits share similar characteristics. However, when it comes to terminology, “gourds” usually refers to hard-shelled, non-edible cucurbits suitable for decorative purposes or as utensils. On the other hand, “squash” and “pumpkins” can be either edible or ornamental, but they have soft shells and a shorter lifespan (unless cured, like winter squash).

Recently, I visited a farmer’s market and was captivated by the array of exquisite gourds on display. They truly are fabulous!

Exploring the Variety: Types of Gourds

Gourds come in a fascinating range of shapes and colors. Here are four main types you might encounter when growing them from seed or purchasing them for decoration:

Ornamental Gourds

The Cucurbita variety of gourds is the most popular. These American natives come in a multitude of unusual shapes and textures, ranging from smooth and warty to plain and patterned. Cucurbita pepo, the cute and colorful ornamental gourds, are perfect for adorning your space.

Image of Cucurbita pepo

Bottle Gourds

Lagenaria siceraria, also known as hardshell gourds, earned their name because they were traditionally used as drinking vessels. These gourds, including speckled swan gourds, bottle gourds, dipper gourds, and penguin or powderhorn gourds, have been cultivated for over five thousand years. Not only do they last for several years, but their immature forms are also edible. Nowadays, they are commonly used as birdhouses, storage vessels, dippers, or ornaments.

Image of Bottle gourds, Lagenaria siceraria

Sponge Gourds

Luffa aegyptiaca or Luffa cylindrical, known as the well-known bath sponge, is often mistaken for a sea sponge. However, these vegetable sponges are actually related to cucumbers. Once mature and dried, they offer an excellent natural scrubby texture, perfect for a refreshing bath.

Image of Luffa cylindrical

Snake Gourds

The curious and captivating “snake gourd” (Trichosanthes cucumerina var. anguina) belongs to the pumpkin family (Cucurbitaceae). It has seeds similar to its cousin, the watermelon (Citrullus lanatus). Resembling a wriggling snake, this eccentric gourd is edible when young and tender, although not particularly flavorful. Once fully mature, it can even be transformed into a didgeridoo. The snake gourd’s nighttime-blooming flowers add to its allure, attracting moths with their white, fragrant blossoms.

Image of Snake gourds

Cultivating Gourds: Tips for Success

To grow gourds, you can buy mature ones and extract the seeds to plant in the spring. Treat them similarly to winter squash. If you decide to start from seeds, it’s best to begin them indoors six weeks before the last frost. Make sure to prepare the soil in advance, enriching it with organic matter such as compost. If you use a synthetic fertilizer, opt for a slow-release variant.

Here’s a great tip: Gourd leaves are prone to powdery mildew. To combat this, create a simple spray solution by mixing 1 cup of skim milk (skim milk only!) with 5 cups of water. Apply this mixture to the plants weekly for three weeks until the leaves develop.

Gourds are notorious for their sprawling vines, so be mindful of spacing. They can extend up to forty feet from the center of the plant. You may need to provide support, such as a trellis or arbor made from PVC pipes and netting, to keep them contained. While the vines grow, you can also plant other vegetables alongside them, taking advantage of the vertical space.

Image of Gourds growing on a trellis

Harvesting and Curing Gourds: Patience Rewarded

When it comes to harvesting gourds, the timing depends on the type:

  • Ornamental gourds can be picked once their stems turn brown, and the adjacent tendrils become dry.
  • Luffas should be left on the vine until the stem is dry and the gourds start turning brown at both ends. When shaken, the seeds inside will rattle, indicating readiness. Peel off the outer skin to reveal a tan and dry inner fiber.

As for hardshell gourds, leave them in the garden to dry out completely. Over time, the skin will fade, and signs of mold may appear. However, as long as the shell remains intact and does not rot, the gourd will continue to dry. The drying process can take anywhere from 3 to 6 months, depending on the thickness of the shell. Once completely dry, you can unleash your creativity and transform them into birdhouses, dippers, or any other decorative item you desire.

Image of a transformed gourd

The possibilities with gourds are endless. So why not give these “gourdgeous” fruits a try next year? They are sure to add a touch of whimsy and natural beauty to your garden and home.