I don’t know if anyone has ever actually figured out why people like to grow gourds. In the thousands of years of human culture, the gourd has been not just beneficial but necessary. Big, round gourds served as bowls and storage containers, not unlike the plastic storage boxes we get from discount stores today. Smaller gourds, the kinds with handles, were used as dippers, spoons and ladles. Remains of gourd dishes and tools have been found in archeological sites that date back thousands of years. The gourd accompanied humans around the world as dish, carryall and vegetable.
My parents grew what used to be called, “Guinea beans,” in the seed catalogs. They are long, slender gourds that are harvested when 15 to 18 inches long, sliced, battered and fried much like eggplant, okra or green tomatoes. I grow them every year as well, and it’s one of my favorite summer vegetables. The name comes from their being native to the island of New Guinea, where they are also worn as clothing.
Even now, in West Papua, New Guinea where I traveled a few years back, natives still wear the koteka, or penis sheath, a gourd worn for modesty by men in the interior regions of the island, and it’s the same gourd I grew up with as Guinea bean. (Different tribal groups grow different varieties of gourd; Lagenaria siceria is one, while Nepenthes mirabilis is another; not all varieties are edible). Gourd pieces are carved and beaded for jewelry while others are used for canteens and medicine bottles. While I was in New Guinea I traded for some gourd seed, which I received, packaged in another gourd. (Pictured are men from the Dhani tribe).
There is a fascination in our own culture today for growing gourds even though they are no longer necessary in our everyday life. Gourd conferences in Missouri, Ohio and other states, attract thousands of visitors who come to see objects made from gourds. (See the American Gourd Society for more information). Everything from bird houses to works of art are on display, and generally for sale and there are several gourd societies that offer newsletters and trade gourd seed among it’s members.
Possibly it’s the fact that a gourd is a near permanent object that accounts for the fascination. With a pumpkin, you can carve it or eat it, but otherwise there’s not much else you can do with it. With a gourd, once it’s grown and seasoned, it becomes almost like carved wood and can last for centuries if not broken. When I was a child I had a dipper gourd that had a perfect square knot in its long handle. The owner, my next door neighbor, had trained the gourd into that shape and used the gourd on her back porch as a wren house. When she passed away and her family disposed of her possessions, they threw the gourd birdhouse in the trash where I retrieved it.
Gourds are remarkable in how long the seed remain viable. Three years ago a friend brought some decorative gourds to me that I’d never seen before. These had yellow handles with green bottoms, not warty but more with horns. Odd looking things and I kept them on the dining room table in a bowl for about a year. They wound up on the back porch where they remained for nearly two years, where it’s hot in summer and freezes frequently in winter. This spring when I ran across the gourds, I figured the seed were no longer any good. I tossed the gourds out the back door onto the septic tank mound where there are several kinds of decorative grasses and forgot about them.
To my surprise, a plant sprung up. I’d planted pumpkins in the area in the spring and assumed the additional vine was another pumpkin. But long about mid summer I noticed I had lots of the yellow and green horned gourds hanging off of the quince bush, dangling from the variegated cane and several hung like Christmas ornaments from the dwarf cherry tree. Not only had the seed been good all that time, but the gourds had come true to seed and had not crossed with anything else.
Gourds are just one more of the crops that make gardening fun. Happy gardening!