Malabar gourds (Cucurbita ficifolia) are edible squash plants native to South and Central America. Also known as Asian pumpkins, black-seeded squash, cidra, figleaf gourds, pie melons, and seven-year melons, Malabar gourds are less likely to cross-pollinate with other winter squashes than many of our more modern varieties.
Unlike many other gourds, the entire aboveground portion of the plant is edible. Leaves are eaten as greens, seeds are roasted, and immature fruits (a type of bery known as pepos) are eaten cooked, like other squash. Mature fruits are very sweet and commonly used to make candies, pies, beverages, and alcohol. In Asia, the thready pulp is used to make a soup.
When grown in tropical zones, Malabar gourds are perennial vines. Everywhere else, they are annuals. Unlike other cucurbits, Malabar gourds do not develop storage roots. They do generate some substantial vines, however. A well-established plant can grow stems that are 45’ long. Tendrils are used to climb neighboring plants and structures. Each plant can produce up to 50 fruits in a season. [I’ll bet one of these would look amazing growing up a pergola!]
Tan or dark green fruit is oblong, looking much like a speckled watermelon. The fruit is white with black seeds. This fruit can reach 8” in diameter and weighs an average of ten pounds. Like other cucurbits, Malabar gourds produce orange and yellow flowers that are male or female on the same plant, so only one is needed.
How to grow Malabar gourds
You can grow Malabar gourds from seed or by layering an existing plant in USDA Hardiness Zones 3–11. Tendrils covered with soil can also develop roots and be cut from the parent plant to create the next generation. Seeds should be planted one- to two- inches deep in loamy, nutrient-rich soil. These plants can grow in partial sun to full sun. They need regular irrigation and good drainage. Plants should be spaced 2–3 feet apart. Being heat lovers, only the sturdiest plants can handle brief periods of frost. Harvested fruit can last for several years if kept dry.
Problems with Malabar gourds
Being something of an ancient rogue, Malabar gourds have very few pest or disease problems. In fact, these plants are often used commercially as rootstock for other cucurbits.
Research has shown that eating Malabar gourds can help reduce the complication associated with diabetes. But these ancient edibles would probably make a nice addition to your foodscape, even if that weren’t the case.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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