We’re looking at the last grouping of “squash” today – the gourds. Gourds have hard rinds and come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and thickness (from eggshell thin to over an inch thick). Gourds are related to squash, (including pumpkins), being in the same plant family group, Cucurbitaceae, and grow on vines with coiled, climbing tendrils displaying this most unique fruit. The edible, soft shell gourds are the squash or pumpkin, and are enjoyed in many culinary uses. The inedible, hard shell gourds are more commonly used as colorful decor and are not to be eaten, but are used in other unique ways.
Gourds are native to Africa but have been on the earth for thousands of years at least, and experts believe they are one of the first plants that has spanned the entire globe and been cultivated throughout the world. In fact, it was a gourd that grew over Jonah to shade him from the heat when he was angry that the Lord forgave the people of Nineveh.
Even before written history began, gourds were used in numerous ways. Native Americans in North America used them to make pottery and necessary utensils for their daily living. Today they are often used as decor (shells painted and even carved), as utensils, vessels, hats, and musical instruments. Africans used gourds as bowls, bottles, and needed pottery items. When dried, the rattling of seeds within allows the musicians to use the gourds as percussion instruments. Interestingly enough, today especially in the Caribbean, gourds are used as resonating chambers on particular stringed instruments and drums. Hawaiians made musical instruments out of gourds including a gourd whistle, gourd flute and gourd ocarina (an ancient flute-like wind instrument).
Gourds are colorful and have unique characteristics and can add beauty to your fall or Thanksgiving table decorations. I have a few small ones with my pumpkin collection on our dining room table in fact (see picture on the right).
There are basically three types of gourds:
Hardshell gourds are considered the gourds of history, as we’ve already mentioned, because they were/are used as containers, tools, utensils, and musical instruments. These type of gourds make great bird houses, too.
Ornamental gourds have thinner shells, and are smaller and brightly colored. They can have bumps on them or ‘warts’ and some can be spikey. They’re the ones you see at most supermarket produce areas in the fall and they are similar to the ones that sit on my dining room table right now.
Luffa is the sponge gourd. Yes, you can get sponge from a gourd, but this type of gourd is a bathtub friend. These gourds grow on yellow-flowered vines very much like cucumbers. Once the fruit section matures and is processed to remove everything but the fibers, then it is ready to be used as a bath or kitchen sponge. You might have even seen this type of processed gourd marketed as luffa or loofah, a sponge gourd used like a body scrub. You might have even walked on this type of sponge gourd because luffas are also used to make the soles of beach sandals.
If you’re interested in learning more about gourds, there is plenty of information at your fingertips (on the web). You can find everything from magazines about gourds, to how to decorate and carve gourds, and how to find groups or clubs of gourd lovers. If you just want to enjoy their colorful uniqueness, then get a few different ones and add them to your fall or Thanksgiving decorations/displays. Based on their lengthy history I’d say gourds are here to stay, wouldn’t you?