Gorgeous Ornamental Gourds

Both edible and ornamental gourds are favorites for craft projects, with a wide variety of shapes and colors to enjoy.

| Fall 2015

Gourds are an ancient and unique crop, grown more for their utility than for food. This member of the Cucurbitaceae, or squash family, hails from tropical climates and has been grown in traditional societies all over the world. Even today, gourds are of economic importance both for their utility and beauty when made into craft items, and as a food. Gourds are a pleasure to grow, where space is adequate and can be enjoyed as displays, elaborated into beautiful craft items, or at table.

An illustrious past

Gourds have a most ancient history and are believed to be among the very first plants domesticated and disseminated by humans. Experts argue for multiple points of origin: evidence points to domestication in Asia and Africa. The gourd was no doubt treasured for its versatility as a basis for creation of many useful items. Modern DNA analysis even lends credence to the intriguing possibility that gourds were introduced (much later) to Polynesia from South America along with the sweet potato around 1000 AD.

It’s no wonder this plant was cherished everywhere it was known: what other plant can you use to easily create so many practical as well as ornamental articles? From gourds you can fashion cups, plates, bowls, birdhouses, musical instruments (drums, stringed instruments like a sitar or banjo, flutes), masks, dippers, jewelry, and even fishing floats.

Some of the more bizarre uses to which this obliging vegetable have been put include use in ritual and magic, as a fertility symbol and even for storage of blood alleged to be that of Louis XVI, in an elaborately decorated gourd bearing the date 1793, the year the French king was beheaded. Throughout history, and even before it began, gourds have been drawn on, carved, painted, engraved, burned and cut. Long before anyone grew square watermelons, the Chinese were tying wooden molds around immature gourd fruits, causing them to develop into very specific shapes. Gourds’ position and value in the cosmos has been celebrated in Native American gourd dances among numerous North American tribes. Perhaps because of their obvious usefulness in carrying water, gourds have figured prominently in creation mythologies. And gourds were once collected and used as money on the island of Haiti, albeit only temporarily until a gold standard could be established. The Haitian monetary unit is still called ‘gourde’ to this day.

Gourds offered an eminently practical natural shape. But as humans became more proficient in the crafting of wood, pottery and metal implements, there were other materials suitable for the manufacture of many items formerly made from gourds, although gourds continued to be utilized worldwide. In addition to their utility and ease of fabrication into myriad useful items, gourds offered one more benefit, one which will never go out of fashion: the immature fruits of some kinds are edible and delicious.

Edible gourds

The most widely known edible gourd, at least in European and American gardens, is the one Italians call “cucuzza”. It is known by other names as well, including zucca, Italian edible gourd, Tasmania bean, and Guinea bean. This true gourd variety is light green and elongate-cylindrical. Allowed to develop to maturity, the fruits may easily reach three feet or more in length. If the vines are allowed to sprawl on the ground, the fruits will twist and turn as they develop. That doesn’t hurt them a bit, but if the plants are trained up a trellis or into a tree, the fruits will hang from the vines and will be nice and straight. A crop of them looks like baseball bats hanging from the plants’ support. Cucuzza are best when harvested small, under 10 inches in length. They are often sliced, battered or dredged in breadcrumbs or flour, and fried in olive oil. They can also be stewed and are often combined with tomatoes and Italian spices. They are in fact used in any way that a summer squash might be prepared, and the flavor is similar, if richer and more intense. The young leaves are eaten as well, usually in some sort of soup.

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