Some people say gardeners are out of their gourds, spending so much time with plants. Personally, I take that sort of commentary on dedication and commitment as a compliment.
But what makes a gourd a gourd? Let’s find out!
People have been growing gourds for over 13,000 years, making it one of the oldest domesticated plants. It's also one of the biggest edible plant groups.
Most gourds are large, fleshy, hard-skinned fruits, called pepos. Some of them are edible and some of them are used as containers or musical instruments, called güiros.
This second group is often called bottle-gourds. Bottle gourds can be used to make bird houses, bird feeders, and some amazing art.
There are also the luffas, or sponge gourds, used in the bath.
The gourd clan
Gourds come in all shapes and sizes. Some are no bigger than your thumb, while the biggest on record was a pumpkin that weighed in at 2,323.7-pounds back in 2014. For comparison, your average car weighs 4,000 pounds. Unless you are willing to commit an awful lot of time, water, and real estate to your gourds, I don’t think you’re going to have to deal with anything that substantial.
Most gourds are annual vines, though bush varieties have been developed and there are even a few trees. Most gourd plants use tendrils to climb. They have large palmate leaves that are often covered with bristles. The stems tend to be hairy. These plants produce large orange, yellow, or white flowers which are either male or female, making hand-pollination easy. Cross-pollination can occur between some gourds, but not with others. It depends on which group they are in.
If you want to be technically correct. the word gourd refers to two specific genera of Cucurbitaceae: Lagenaria and Cucurbita. But we don’t need to be that picky.
The edible gourds (Cucurbita) are from Central America and bottle-gourds (Lagenaria) are native to Africa. The Latin word lagena means bottle or flask. Back before we figured out pottery, mature gourds were allowed to dry and the hollowed-out shells used to carry water and other things. There are also edible snake gourds (Trichosanthes cucumerina), from Asia. The flesh of snake gourds, being red in color, is used as a tomato substitute. [I may have to try some this year!]
How to grow gourds
There are many edible gourds that deserve room in the garden, including buffalo gourds, burr gherkins, chayote, cucamelons, cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, and squash.
Being from Africa, Asia, and Central America, gourds need lots of heat and sunshine. Annual gourds also need frequent irrigation to reach full size. Perennial gourds, not so much. Large seeds should be planted one to two inches deep in loose, nutrient-rich soil. Cattle panels, trellising, and pergolas can be used to keep the fruit off the ground. They look pretty impressive, hanging overhead, too.
If the leaves of your gourd plants start getting skinny and the fruit develops warts, your plant may have been infected with zucchini yellow mosaic. If you see witches’ brooms, it may be aster yellows squash gourd mosaic. Other gourd diseases include blights, powdery mildew, and squash mosaic. The chance of these diseases occurring can be significantly reduced by spacing plants out properly and avoiding overhead watering. Cucumber beetles, flea beetles, guava fruit flies, melon flies, and squash vine borers will be the most commonly seen pests. And rats.
If you want to grow gourds, take a look at the weeds in your yard. Do you see bur cucumber (Sicyos angulatus) or creeping cucumber (Melothria pendula)? If you do, gourds will love your yard!
An interesting note on gourds: these plants often exhibit tiny knobby glands, called extrafloral nectaries, that produce nectar to attract pollinators and other beneficial insects.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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