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Gourds: A Long History
by Susan Randstrom Bruck - September 2015

In the garden or in your home, gourds brighten the autumn displays.  

What is a Gourd?

Google it and you’ll find definitions ranging from “the hard-shelled fruit of various plants,” to “out of one’s gourd.”

What is a Gourd? From the Ground Up …

From a gardeners’ viewpoint, a gourd plant is an exuberant, climbing annual that can wriggle up to 50 feet in a single, growing season, tearing up trellises and grabbing valuable, horizontal real estate in our vegetable gardens. These curious fruits or seedpods morph lazily into all sorts of whimsical shapes with mono- or multi-colored skins. With smooth or warty-skins and expressive names such as Speckled Swan, Mexican Bottle, Warty, Long Handled Dipper, Kettle, Bushel Basket, Snake and Turk’s Cap, my imagination takes flight.

Gourds are part of the extensive Cucurbit family that includes melons, cucumbers, squash and pumpkins but are set apart by their hard shells and inedible qualities. Gourds are also separated into three categories: small and ornamental with soft shells; larger and hard-shelled (Lagenaria); and the sponge-giving, luffa gourd.

Gourds Enjoy a Long History

As one of the earliest domesticated plants, gourds have developed in tandem with human civilization. Bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceraria) were uncovered at archaeological sites that date as far back as 13,000 B.C.E. Although the thick outer rinds of these hard-shelled gourds evolved to protect their precious seeds from birds and other predators, the hard rind has also made them very valuable to humans for ornamental, religious or domestic purposes. In cultures from hot and dry climates, gourds were often associated with water. They were used either to hold water as dippers or as vessels often mentioned in their mythologies. In a Chinese creation story, only two people were saved from a catastrophic flood by floating in a large bottle gourd. In Africa, calabash gourds were sculpted into pipes, horns and drums. In the South Pacific, gourds were fashioned into wind instruments.

Native Americans have always incorporated gourds into their daily lives: For Cherokee ceremonial rattles, a hollowed gourd with dried seeds provided the sound. Seminoles ingested seeds to relieve headaches and body pains. Seeds were also burned to smoke the body to cure insanity. The Ojibwa ate gourds as a vegetable before the rind hardened.

Want to Grow Your Own?

Tips for growing your own hard-shelled gourds.

An excellent, gourd-growing season is a long one with warm temperatures. If you plan to grow them in our area, USDA Zones 5a or 5b, it helps to start the seeds indoors. Set out the young plants as soon as temperatures are warm enough at night (usually after May 15th). Consistent watering is a must for producing the largest and thickest-skinned gourds.

  1. Nick seed tips with a nail clipper: Because gourd seeds have an extremely hard, protective coating, try to snip the “shoulders” of the seeds to encourage germination.
  2. Pre-soak seeds: Soak seeds for 24 hours to reduce length of germination time. Soaking any longer may cause the seeds to rot.
  3. Plant seeds in peat pots: Start seeds in a 4-inch peat pot because this size will allow room for root development. Try using a light, soilless seed-starting mixture. Plant seeds to 1-inch deep, with 2 to 3 seeds per pot.
  4. Cover tray: Cover the entire tray with plastic wrap to keep the pots warm and moist. Check daily.
  5. Watch plants grow: The first leaves to appear are not the “real” leaves but cotyledons that are smooth-edged and rounded in shape. The next leaves to appear are the plant’s true leaves, with irregular edges and a five-lobed outline. Plants can be grown in containers until they reach the four “true leaf” stage in 4 to 6 weeks.
  6. Harden the plants: Before planting outdoors, plants need to be hardened off. To acclimate these tender plants, place trays outside in the shade for a short time (15 minutes or so). Gradually increase the time until they can be left outside for 24 hours.
  7. Plant outdoors: Plant outside around May 15th. Most gourds need 110 to 120 days to reach maturity. Larger gourds may need up to 175 days.

What is in a Name?

Many gourds carry a name suggesting their use on their seed packets: dipper gourds and birdhouse gourds.

1. Kettle or Martin (Lagenaria siceraria): Birds such as purple martins love to make their nest in these Kettle/Martin gourds. At 18-inches across and 15-inches tall, this gourd is also known as the birdhouse gourd. It requires a long growing season.

2. Cannon Ball (Lagenaria siceraria): Perfectly round gourd with a tough, thick shell – popular for crafting as
it is smaller than the Kettle gourd at only 4-6 inches in diameter. Good for small bowls or can be stacked like “cannon balls.”

3. Big Apple (Lagenaria siceraria): Looks like a big green apple reaching 5-7 inches across. It dries very well.

4. Dinosaur Gourd (Lagenaria siceraria): Fruits with green, serpentine skins grow long, curved necks and wing-like projections.

5. Speckled Swan (Lagenaria siceraria): Smooth, dark green skin is mottled with a creamy color. The gourd’s curved neck ends with a swan-shaped head.

6. Giant Bottle (Lagenaria siceraria): The light-green fruit dries to buff brown and matures up to 24 inches. When fruit has dried, remove seeds and it’s ready to be turned into a birdhouse.

7. Blister (Lagenaria siceraria): Apple-shaped and very warty, 9-12 inches in diameter when mature.

8. Yugoslavian Fingers (Cucurbita pepo): This slightly oval, cream-colored gourd has from 8 to 10 “fingers” that fan out at the top.

9. Snake (Lagenaria siceraria): This excellent climber has long and curved gray-green fruits that turn bright orange when mature. It’s a good gourd to use for painting and other crafts.

10. Nest Egg (Cucurbita pepo): Small white oblong gourds that resemble eggs are used in crafts and also for fooling hens into laying their eggs.


Visit for more information and photographs of individual gourds.


A version of this article appeared in print in Chicagoland Gardening Volume XXI Issue V.



Susan Randstrom Bruck is a former garden columnist and graphic designer for the Chicago Sun-Times. With a B.F.A. in Design and a certificate as a Master Gardener, she continues to enjoy the best of both worlds.


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