Buffalo gourds are desert natives that go by several names: coyote gourd, Missouri gourd, prairie gourd, wild gourd, wild pumpkin, and fetid gourd just to name a few. But don’t let that last name put you off. These high protein edible gourds thrive in areas with frequent drought.
Buffalo gourds (Cucurbita foetidissima) are not the lush, juicy melons of the cucurbit family. They are not the substantial zucchinis of summer garden and Chocolate Zucchini Cake fame. [Email me if you'd like the recipe.] At only 3–4” in diameter, these denizens of the desert are hardy, rugged, and durable. In fact, once you put a buffalo gourd in the ground, it will continue to produce for several years. Unlike most cucurbits, buffalo gourds are perennial.
How buffalo gourds grow
These wild cousins of the cantaloupe have a tuberous taproot that stores nutrients and water during harsh summer weather. Over time, that taproot can weigh as much as 150 pounds! Your average buffalo gourd root system will be eight feet long and weigh 100 pounds. In some cases, the taproot splits, creating two legs that look like a human form when dug up.
Vines can spread for several yards, but these plants don’t need much in the way of attention. Leaves are heart-shaped, being 5” across and 10” wide. Some people think the leaves smell funky when brushed against, hence the fetid reference.
Germination can occur when temperatures are between 60°F and 100°F, with 77°F being optimal. Flowers are large and yellow, like most other cucurbits. The fruit starts out green with white stripes and then ripens to a yellowish-green.
These plants are slow growers, taking five to eight months to reach maturity, but you’ll want to eat them long before that.
Life stages of buffalo gourds
Leaves, fruit stems, and vines dry as the fruit matures, but you wouldn’t want to eat a mature buffalo gourd. These plants work hard to protect themselves in their native arid environments. By the time they are full-grown, they are too bitter to eat. [Your chickens will still love them, I’m sure.] Each winter, the aboveground portion of the plant will die back. In spring, it will return.
How to grow a buffalo gourd
Buffalo gourds need soil with excellent drainage, but the soil quality can be marginal. Sandy, slightly alkaline loam soils are best for these desert gourds. Most buffalo gourds are grown from seed, but they can also be propagated from nodal roots. When planting buffalo gourd seeds, deeper is better, up to a point. Seeds planted two to four inches deep grow best. Allow the soil to dry out between waterings.
How to use buffalo gourds
Buffalo gourds can be eaten fresh when young, the same way you would eat summer squash, but there isn’t much flesh and that flesh contains relatively high levels of something called cucurbitacins. Cucurbitacins are chemicals that create bitterness which protects the plant. Those same chemicals are found in all types of modern squash but at much lower levels. If you eat too much buffalo gourd flesh, it can make you sick. The seeds are the real crop.
If you’ve ever roasted pumpkin or butternut squash seeds, you know what a treat they can be. Buffalo gourds can provide you with a hefty harvest of snackable high-protein seeds. These seeds contain a lot of healthy oil (linoleic acid), too. Traditionally, that oil was used by Native Americans to make soap.
Buffalo gourd problems
Being such rugged individuals, buffalo gourds have very few problems other than white mold related to drainage issues. Cucumber beetles and squash bugs, which normally plague cucurbits, have a hard time penetrating the tough skin of buffalo gourds.
If you live in an area with plenty of hot weather and you love snacking on seeds, give buffalo gourds a try.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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