What is up with gourds?
By Leah BouRamia
Gourds. They come out every year, announcing that summer is caput, and nippy weather is around the corner. On the mantle, on the table, in a basket, in some kind of cinnamon-scented arrangement in the floral section, ornamental gourds abound. Upon my annual sighting I wonder, what are these things all about? So I set out to learn a little bit about the striped, bumpy, UFO-shaped squash we call the gourd.
Botanically, gourds are the brothers of pumpkins, cousins to cucumbers, watermelon, and oddly, the plant that, when dried, yields a “loofah” sponge– the luffa plant. One should not eat this plant once it matures to it’s sponge-like state, though the immature fruits are surprisingly edible. Similarly, one widely held notion is that gourds are inedible. This is only partially true, as the specific genus determines whether the plant may be eaten. Bottle gourds, from the Lagenaria genus, are largely inedible. Typically, these are the gourds we see our hippie-friends dry out and turn into birdhouses. Then there are the others, the ones we see at the grocery store, the shiny yellow, white, orange and green gourds shaped like a variety of Protozoa. So then, can we roast them up? Cube and add to stews? Make squash pie? Not exactly. According to Epicurious.com, “…unlike pumpkins and winter squashes, gourds have a near-impenetrable skin that barely softens with baking, and the flesh isn’t that much to write home about, either.” Alright, so it’s not poison, but it ain’t cuisine either.
My question then is, why cultivate something you can’t eat and sell it in the produce section as if you could? Evidently, it’s part of an increasing trend of Americans romanticizing fall. Pumpkin spice lattes, Twinkies, cereals, Oreos and, (ready for it?)– “fall scented” kitty litter, all point to an increasing trend among Americans to consume “autumnal” products. According to NPR, “In the last 30 years the amount of American farmland devoted to pumpkins has tripled, and most of those big fruits aren’t filling pies. As the weather turns, the Pinterest-loving sorts among us increasingly look for odd, eye-catching pumpkins, gourds and squash to decorate homes and offices.” The distinctive spotted spines and serpentine stems seem to visually announce the arrival and celebration of autumn, “Ah, gourds are out. Bettuh bring up the sweatuhs from down’sellah!”
Chris Jaswell knows all about selling gourds. As owner and farmer of Jaswell Farms, 50 Swan Road, Smithfield, he has grown and sold them for many years at his farm. After years of selling the bumpy squash, he opted against it for this year. “They are kind of more trouble than they are worth.” Says Jaswell. “People want them shellacked, and that takes time and people to do it. In the end, we just have so many other things going on here, you know. It’s an ancillary crop.” He gestures to rows of giant pumpkins ripening in the September sun, and an impressive apple orchard. Everyone loves pumpkins and apples. Gourds are a wildcard. He shrugs, laughing, “it’s just another thing on the kitchen table, I don’t really get it.” As another New England pragmatist, I share the sentiment. And yet…I don’t think they are going anywhere.
Over at Polseno Orchards at Scituate Nursery Farm and Greenhouses, 767 Hartford Pike, Scituate, gourds are a hot item.“ People pick gourds the way they pick a pumpkin,” explains owner Linda Polseno “it has to be perfect.” I cast my gaze around the shop and nursery entrance, where nubby piles inhabit just about every available surface. “This year the winged gourds are big.” She adds, leading me toward what I think must be a miniature flying saucer with striped side ridges. I ask if gourds are a big money-maker for the farm. “Well they won’t make you rich,” she says, laughing, “but it is a convenience for our customers.” Outside, I ask the gaggle of folks painting pumpkins and selecting mums if they were planning to purchase a gourd. Crickets. Maybe the gourd people come later in the day. I must say, the varieties are impressive, and I am even tempted to go pick a few on my own.
So have they always been purely decorative? It’s not like they are a new crop…are they? Some light reading will show that, oh no, gourds are quite ancient. According to the American Gourd Society: “It is interesting to note … that the bottle gourd — essentially a container, not a food crop — is the earliest known domesticated plant grown here. Radiocarbon dating indicates that gourds were used as containers in the New World for at least 9000 years.” I can’t help but wonder if ancient man arranged them on his kitchen table as well, “Ah, gourds are out. Bettuh bring up the pelts from down’sellah!”
The gourd has it’s own history and legend, too. The Hebrew Bible mentions gourds in both Kings and then in Jonah, where “It is grown in great abundance on the alluvial banks of the Tigris and on the plain between the river and the ruins of Nineveh.” Specifically, the Hebrews referred to the pakkuoth, which in modern botanical speak is likely the Cucumis colocynthus. Upon some investigation, this species was known as one of the greatest “purgatives” of its time. So strong, it appears, that the gourd was known to expel early pregnancies and was thus used with extreme caution. Yikes. The gourd variety Cucumis prophetarum is then interpreted to be the “poisonous” gourd the “sons of the prophets” shred into some sort of mush (“pottage”) in Kings. Strangely, modern botany indicates this variety is perfectly edible. Though, it is not inconceivable that the weary travelers instead cooked up the colocynthus, and sat retching next to their Cream of Wheat or whatever.
While most Cucurbits originated here, the bottle gourd actually migrated to the New World from Africa, where it appears to have been first domestically planted. It isn’t totally clear, but one practical use of the bottle gourd may give us a clue: it has been noted that the dried bottle gourd was often used as a flotation device by African fisherman, and that the seeds remaining inside the gourd were viable for planting for as long as 7 months. While certainly impressive, it is not inconceivable that some of these gourds washed up on the shores of North and South America and germinated there. In the 1840s American naturalist Charles Pickering, M.D. noted the presence of bottle gourds in Peru, giving rise to one theory that they may have actually made their way across the Asian continent to Japan and China (where we do find evidence of their cultivation) and then floated across the Pacific ocean.
There are many theories, but one thing is clear, the gourds became part of the cultural fabric of Native people living here long before European colonists arrived in the 1400-1650 period of western sea exploration. According to The Gourd Reserve, a website devoted to both Native applications and modern art of gourds, the Cherokee people used a poultice of soaked gourd seeds for boils, while the Seminoles have used the gourd seeds as both an analgesic and a psychological aid for “the effects of adultery.” In addition to these, the Cocopa, Havasupai and Hopi used gourds as ceremonial items, rattles for babies, ritual music and all manner of water dippers, bowls and canteens.
Here in Rhode Island? It would seem we aren’t exactly using gourds to their fullest potential. Piles of the warty nuggets on tables at restaurants, and even on the counter at my bank and at my dentist’s office, abound. Everywhere I go, the gourds are making their annual appearance. Guess I’d better go bring up the sweaters from the down’selluh.