It’s a toy, a container, a musical instrument…it’s a disappearing plant
Categorized by crafters as “ornamental” and “hard shell,” most gourds are either members of the pumpkin (Cucurbitaceae) or melon family (Lagenaria) and can range in size from about 1 ounce to more than 100 pounds. Brightly colored, soft-shelled ornamental gourds (commonly seen at autumn farmstands) develop from yellow flowers that bloom during the day. Larger, hard-shelled gourds (like the kettle and birdhouse) open their white blossoms from nightfall through early morning. “They grow on the worst pieces of land,” notes Dan Linnemann, a farmer who has been raising gourds for Goebbert’s Farm & Garden Center in South Barrington for the last 35 years.
Among the smallest gourds that grow in Illinois are hard-shelled, 1.5” Tennessee spinners, which can be spun on their thin necks like toy tops, while the large zucca gourds can tip the scale at more than 100 pounds. Zucca gourds (Lagenaria siceraria ‘Zucca’) have an edible, odorless, tasteless, soft, white flesh that has been colored, flavored, and used in place of citron for fruitcake and pickled like watermelon. Replaced by turnips in the 1950’s, zuccas nearly disappeared until 1990 when the American Gourd Society (AGS) found out about Glen Swenson of Sandwich, Illinois. Swenson, the only farmer in the North America known to still be cultivating the giant gourd, shared his seeds with AGS, and helped revitalize the disappearing giant.
The Okeechobee gourd (Cucurbita okeechobeensis) found in Florida is on the federal list of endangered species. A native vine that takes root in alligator nests and likes to climb all over the elderberries and buttonbush flanking Lake Okeechobee, the gourd disappeared as a result of a 95 percent decline in swamp habitat. Too bitter to eat, the Okeechobee gourd was used as a ball, rattle, or cup. Common in 1913, seventy-five years later, only three Okeechobee gourds were left and not a single living plant. Seeds from those gourds were planted at the Bok Tower Gardens as part of the center’s rare plant conservation program and continue to be cultivated to reintroduce to the region where they are native.
In Africa, the concern for gourd preservation surfaced in 2001, as Kyanika Adult Women’s Group (KAWG), a group of 26 women and three men partnered with Bioversity International and the National Museums of Kenya to conserve bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria) diversity and culture. During the two-year project, nearly 200 varieties of gourds were gathered, cataloged, and propagated in community fields to produce seed for distribution and exchange. Gourd, or kitete, focused songs, stories, and interviews were compiled for the national database in languages of the
region. Hosting cultural events, marketing gourd products, and maintaining the largest gourd museum of its kind in Kenya, KAWG wants to boost tourism and motivate residents to preserve this heritage-laden crop.
For people in the Barrington area, gourd farms are not commonplace because the growing season is so short. While smaller gourds can mature in as few as three months, larger gourds can take 4 – 5 months. Hot, somewhat wet summers, followed by dry autumn weather found in Arizona, North Carolina, California, and Arkansas yield bigger, thicker-shelled gourds that crafters covet. Hard-shell gourds should be left on the vine until after the plant dies and either kept in the field or stored in an unheated garage or shed. Softer gourds harvested before a plant-killing frost tend to get moldy and slimy.
You don’t have to be Martha Stewart to be a gourder Gourd crafters (known as “gourders”) wield everything from small, craft-friendly jigsaws to awls and drills to transform gourds into flutes, drums, stringed instruments, vases, birdhouses, beehives, animal traps, containers for food, vessels for liquids, ladles, spoons, doll heads, rattles, hats, masks, jewelry, and ornaments. Illinois Gourd Society (IGS) chapters located throughout the state help keep the craft alive by bringing together everyone from novice to professional gourders.
At the IGS Show & Sale hosted at the Chicago Botanic Garden the third weekend of September, gourd artists come from as far as Missouri, Indiana, and Wisconsin to lead workshops and sell their wares. This year’s workshops included gourd-pulp papermaking, chip decorating, and vase and birdhouse making. “You don’t have to be artistic to work with gourds,” says Rhonda Adair of Willow Pond Gourds in Ursa, Illinois, showing off her collection gourds ranging from an earthy vessel decorated with gourd seeds to a bright red bowl with woven trim, jovial gourd jack-o-lanterns, and a modern vase exploding with the bright hues of fall. “You can make anything with a gourd that you can make with a piece of wood,” she says with a smile. “You just have to let the gourds be themselves.”
For the next 10,00 years Growing and crafting with gourds is a way of life that has been taking place in the Americas for the last 10,000 years. While some scientists originally thought that gourds may have floated to the western hemisphere from Africa, genetic comparisons in bottle gourds have shown a closer match to those from Asia. Likely brought across the Bering Strait, Asian gourds became a multipurpose staple of the ancient Americas that remain an ecologically sustainable source of food and habitat for wildlife, and a practical source of economical, recyclable craft materials worth preserving for generations.
To learn more about gourds, visit www.americangourdsociety.org/ILGS/.
Freshly harvested gourds should be cleaned with soap and water, dried, and treated with rubbing alcohol. Drying or “curing” cucurbita gourds takes 1 - 6 months depending on the type and size of gourd. Clean, dry fruit should be kept in a dark, well-ventilated area while it is curing, and any mold should removed. Dried gourds are ready to wax or decorate when they become light and the seeds rattle inside. Lagenaria gourds can be dried in the same way as cucurbita gourds, but take longer to dry internally. All gourds dry from outside in.
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April Anderson is a freelance naturalist and writer who can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.