The gourd is an ancient tool of mankind

The first person to see the benefit of using a gourd shell to scoop water or to store food probably had no idea the significance that this act would have on mankind. There is evidence that gourds were domesticated and intentionally grown as long as 13,000 years ago and probably in use even longer. Gourd species, the genus Lagenaria, most likely originated in Africa or Asia and very possibly both, since there is evidence of two distinct areas where early gourds were cultivated. People soon learned that there were many more things that gourds could do besides the first crude containers or scoops. Early people soon crafted gourds into eating utensils, fishnet floats, musical instruments, masks, beehives, birdhouses and animal traps. Gourds seem to have appeared in the New World about 10,000 years ago as well. Since gourds have been known to float for over 300 days in sea water and still contain viable seeds, fishnet floats that worked free from their nets could have very well floated across the Atlantic from Africa. Gourds could have also been carried across the Bering Strait during the Pre-Siberian migration. However it happened, gourds soon became preferred containers of many of the early peoples. They were lightweight and easy to grow, producing a respectable crop for their needs. There is evidence that gourds were in use as containers long before the advent of pottery.

The gourd through history

The Chinese often placed a two part shell around young gourds that was carved on the inside. As the gourd grew, it filled in the shell and the resulting gourd had a raised design that often was quite intricate. These gourds were often used in religious ceremonies either as rattles or containers that held sacred herbs or foods. The molded gourds were often quite beautiful and were prized by the priests and shamans. The round shape of many gourds was a natural amplifier for early stringed instruments and of course, with an animal skin stretched across the opening, a wonderful drum. Gourds were even considered a form of currency in Haiti for awhile and the national treasury was filled with them. Gourds also played a part in the Civil War. There was a song that was sung called 'Follow the Drinking Gourd' and it was a clever way of directing escaped slaves northward since the star constellations, the Big Dipper and Little Dipper resemble the dipper gourds often seen near a well. The star patterns are circumpolar constellations and never set in the North American latitudes. At any time during the night, a person can determine which way is north by finding these stars. The North Star is the last star in the handle of the Little Dipper. The bowl stars of the Big Dipper point to the Little Dipper handle. Both constellations are close to each other and are quite easily recognized.

dipper gourds

Gourds can be eaten

Young gourds are popular in African, Indian and Asian cuisine and there are a number of recipes using these small, immature fruits. After all, gourds are cousins of cucumbers and squash. Some gourds cook up better than others and the calabash and bottle gourds seem to be favorites. They need to be quite young and the best way to tell if they will work is to scrape a little of the skin with your fingernail. If the meat underneath is green, it will be ok. Use young gourds in stir-frys and chutneys. Most have a slightly bitter taste, which pairs well with these types of cuisines. Eating gourds isn't for everyone, however they won't hurt you if you want to experiment.

Gourd festivals are popular today

Gourds are still quite popular and beloved to this day. Artisans carve, dye, shape and create lovely works of art from the humble gourd all over the world and a quick internet search for gourd festivals brings up pages of local celebrations devoted to keeping the art alive. From exhibitions of fantastic gourd creations to workshops on growing, preserving and decorating, there's sure to be an activity to please everyone from pre-schoolers on up.

Growing your own gourds

Gourds are popular because they are easy to grow. They do like lots of sunshine and the heat of summer. Most of them need a long growing season of 100 to 180 days, however even northern gardeners can enjoy them if the plants are started early indoors. Gourds, like their more edible cousins are annual plants with a life cycle of just one season. Plant in well-drained, fertile soil after all danger of frost is passed. Many people plant their gourds on a small, raised mound to ensure good drainage because while gourds love lots of water, they do not like swampy or boggy conditions. Give gourds plenty of growing room, the vines like to spread. Many people encourage their gourds to climb a trellis. This works well for the long-necked dipper gourds because this keeps the necks straight. If grown on the ground, mulch under the vines so that the fruits do not lay on the bare ground. This will prevent rot. Let the plants grow all summer and into fall as the gourds will not be mature until after frost cuts down the vines. After the killing frost, clip the gourds from the vines leaving several inches of stem since this also prevents rot and take them to a well-ventilated area to cure. Many people use barns or sheds and even their attics for gourd curing. Cure until the shell seems hard and dry and when tapped, the gourd sounds hollow. You may even hear the seeds rattle inside. When this happens, it is time to clean them if you wish for a slick, even finish. Submerge in a bucket of water with a little bleach added and scrub with a scratch pad until the gourd is clean. Let it dry and it is ready to decorate.

birdhouse gourds growing

Gourd sources

Growing gourds is such an ancient and rewarding undertaking that many gardeners feel the need to grow a few birdhouses or dippers. However there are so many other shapes and forms that the possibilities are endless. Many pop-up seed racks found in big box stores have a selection, or we have a number of participating vendors offering several different kinds, so if you have the sunshine and the room, try your hand at a few this season. The results are fun.