Gourgeous gourds (curcubita)

By: Ange McNeilly (Canberra Organic - Spring 2019)

Gourds belong to the plant family cucurbitaceae, along with pumpkin, squash, cucumber, watermelon and zucchini. Ornamental gourds range from small (approximately five centimetres in length) to large (approximately 30 centimetres in length) and are oblong, pear-shaped, curved, bulbous, or cylindrical in shape.

They come in an array of colours including shades of green; orange; yellow; blue; cream; tan; brown; and multi-coloured, and they often have stripes, spots, or mottling. The gourd’s surface may be smooth or covered in warts and horns.

Although there is a long history of growing gourds in Africa, South America and Asia, they are not so familiar in Australia. One of the earliest domesticated types of plants, subspecies of the bottle gourd, lagenaria siceraria, have been discovered in archaeological sites dating from as early as 13,000 BC.

There are two types of ornamental gourds, those with soft skins having large, edible yellow flowers, cucurbita pepo; and those with hard skins, lagenaria siceraria, having smaller white flowers.

Some gourds, including the bottle gourd, lagenaria siceraria, and the dishcloth gourd, luffo cylindrica, can be eaten while the fruit is young. In India and Asia, gourds are a very popular food and are specifically cultivated for consumption.

Members of the cucurbitaceae family are annual or perennial herbaceous plants, native to temperate and tropical areas and many are climbing or trailing vines with characteristic tendrils. Gourds do best in a hot summer with the large types taking about 125 days to ripen. Most are grown as vines and require a trellis or pergola to grow over. They need a warm position and are gross feeders requiring lots of decomposed animal manure to grow well. Wet conditions encourage the growth of downy mildew, so it is better to water at their base and not on their leaves.

Most gourds are grown for practical or ornamental use, rather than for food. When ripe they are picked, washed and placed on a rack to dry. The drying process takes from two to 12 months. The gourds are then made into items such as utensils; tools; bowls; cups; bottles; scoops; ladles; fishnet floats; whistles; rattles; pipes; birdhouses; musical instruments; wash basins and other useful objects. They can be dyed, waxed, wood- burned, carved and polished. There is also an ancient Chinese craft of shaping gourds as they grow.

Pick gourds only when the stem dries out or starts to shrivel, or just before a frost which kills the plant. Once picked, dry gourds in the sun in a protected spot where they will not get wet for two to three weeks after picking, to harden the skins. There are many ways of treating gourds so they last longer and keep, better but generally coloured ones will maintain their colour for many years in a bowl out of direct sunlight. Ripe and hardened gourds can be drilled, or cut with sharp or serrated knives.