The World of Gourds

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WAYNE'S WORD Volume 5 (Number 3) Fall 1996

The Wild & Wonderful
World Of Gourds

This WAYNE'S WORD Is Dedicated To
The Gourd Family (Cucurbitaceae)

Topics To Be Discussed

An Assortment Of Gourds

An assortment of gourds: 1. Teasel Gourd (Cucumis dipsaceus); 2. Ornamental Gourds (Cucurbita pepo); 3. Summer Crookneck (Cucurbita pepo); 4. Wild Cucumber (Marah macrocarpus); 5. Horned Cucumber (Cucumis metuliferus); 6. Coyote Melon (Cucurbita foetidissima); 7. Vegetable Sponge (Luffa acutangula); and 8. White Bush Scallop (Cucurbita pepo).

The World's Largest Fruit

The Gourd Family (Cucurbitaceae) includes hundreds of species of vines bearing coiled, climbing tendrils and some of the most unusual fruits in the world. The total number of species may exceed 700, with at least 100 different genera. Known as "curcurbits" to gourd lovers, the fruits of this exceedingly diverse family come in an astounding array of shapes and sizes, from tiny, marble-sized "jumbie pumpkins" of the Caribbean islands to giant gourds over seven feet (2 m) long. In fact, the undisputed world's largest fruits belong to this remarkable plant family. According to Cucurbits, the official newsletter of the World Pumpkin Confederation, a 1993 record-breaking pumpkin weighed in at 836 pounds (379 kg) and a giant squash tipped the scales at just over 700 pounds (317 kg). One year later at the "gourd olympics" in Port Elgin, Ontario, the reign of the pumpkin was broken by a 900 (408 kg) pound squash.

When this record was first published on-line in Wayne's Word: "The World's Largest Fruit" (see hyperlink below), it appeared that the squash had clearly beaten its long-time rival, the pumpkin, and was indeed the world's largest fruit (at least according to contests sponsored by the World Pumpkin Confederation). But finally, on that fateful day of October 5, 1996 at the official World Pumpkin Confederation weigh-in at Clarence, New York, the pumpkin once again regained its title of the world's largest fruit. Not only did a record-breaking pumpkin beat its 900 pound squash rival of 1994, but it also broke the 1,000 pound barrier where no pumpkin or squash had ever gone before. For their remarkable 1,061 pound (481 kg) mammoth pumpkin, the lucky growers received a grand prize of 50,000 dollars. According to the growers, Paula and Nathan Zehr, they used 150 gallons of water a day and a custom fertilizer mix containing 60 ingredients. During its 3-4 month growing period, their amazing pumpkin gained over 10 pounds per day. In another pumpkin contest held at Canfield, Ohio in October 2000, a pumpkin weighed in at 1140 pounds. In October 2002, a pumpkin was reported from Manchester, New Hampshire with an astonishing weight of 1337 pounds.

According to the Guinness World Record for Heaviest Pumpkin in October 2016 (Accessed 4 Oct. 2020) the world record is now held by Mathias Willemijns from Belgium and his 2,624.6 pound pumpkin. This monstrosity actually weighs more than a small car!

A field of pumpkins and Mr. Wolffia celebrating Halloween.

Pumpkin harvest at Bates Nut Farm in Valley Center, California.

See Article About World's Largest Fruit
See The Jackfruit: Largest Tree-Bearing Fruit

Gourds Used For National Currency

The gourd family also includes many economically important fruits and vegetables, including pumpkins, squash, melons and cucumbers. In addition, gourds are used by people throughout the world for musical instruments, including shakers, maracas, drums, horns, marimbas and various string gourds resembling a banjo. Other uses include pipes, masks, canteens, water jugs, dippers, birdhouses, bath sponges and decorative gourds with intricate etched designs. So important were gourds to Haitian people in the early 1800s that gourds were made the national currency. The governor of northern Haite in 1807, Henri Cristophe, declared that all gourds would become the property of the state. Piled high on farm carts, 227,000 gourds were collected for the treasury by soldiers without objection from the peasants. To this day, the standard coin of Haiti is called a "gourde." There is apparently some disagreement as to whether this large and somewhat cumbersome Haitian currency came from true vine gourds of the Cucurbitaceae, or from calabash trees that commonly grow in the Caribbean islands. According to Carolyn Mordecai (Gourd Craft, 1978), both types of gourds were brought to the treasury of Haite. Incidentally, the gourd was only used temporarily in Haite until a currency system backed by gold could be established. Otherwise you would need a shopping cart full of gourds to buy groceries at the local market.

Do Calabash Gourds Grow On Trees?

The popular, painted calabash gourds of the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America come from a native tropical American tree that belongs to the Bignonia Family (Bignoniaceae), along with catalpa and jacaranda trees. There are two species of Calabash trees that grow wild in Mexico, Central and South America, Crescentia alata and C. cujete. The latter species is easy to identify because it has simple leaves and its gourd-like fruits are much larger, up to 10 inches (25 cm) in diameter. The unusual flowers of both species develop from buds that literally grow out of the main trunk and limbs, a condition termed cauliflory. Like many other large-flowered cauliflorous species, calabash trees are commonly pollinated by small bats of the genera Glossophaga and Artibeus. According to Daniel Janzen (Costa Rican Natural History, 1983), the pollen is in the dorsal (upper) side of the flower and is placed on the head and shoulders of the bat. After pollination the spectacular calabash fruits begin to develop along the trunk and limbs. A crop of 100 or more of these large, green, gourd-like spheres may adorn the tree for up to seven months, before turning yellow-green and eventually falling to the ground. As in coconut palms, it is probably not a good idea to sleep under a calabash tree, at least when it bears mature fruits high above you in the dropping stage.

Although calabash gourds can be large, they are not the largest tree-bearing fruit. Another unrelated cauliflorous tree called jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophylla) bears the world's most massive tree-bearing fruits from its trunk and lower branches. Native to the Indo-Malaysian region, the jackfruit is grown throughout the tropics for its pulpy, edible fruits which may reach nearly 3 feet (1 m) in length and weigh up to 75 pounds (34 kg). Jackfruit and its close relative, breadfruit (A. altilis), belong to the diverse Mulberry Family (Moraceae). You have probably heard of the story of Captain Bligh, who tried to bring a load of breadfruit cuttings from Tahiti to the Caribbean in 1789 aboard the H.M.S. Bounty. Enchanted with the Tahitian way of life, his crew mutinied on the voyage.

Dried calabash gourds are painted in bright colors and are fashioned into all sorts of decorative and useful objects, including shakers, bowls and containers. On the lovely Caribbean island of Dominica, Carib Indians carve elaborate designs into the woody gourds during the "softer" green stage. When dry, the woody gourds are permanently etched with beautiful designs of native animals.

On the lovely Caribbean island of Dominica, Carib Indians carve elaborate designs into the woody calabash gourds during the "softer" green stage. When the gourds dry, the image of a native animal (in this photo a native parrot) is permanently etched into the exocarp of the gourd.

Because calabash gourds are so large and hard-shelled, no native New Word herbivores can crack them open, and the rotting gourds litter the ground beneath old calabash trees. It is well documented that horses can break open the hard shell with their mouth and eat the sweet pulpy mass inside, dispersing the seeds in their dung. In Africa, large woody pods of other species are quickly devoured by large herbivores. According to D.H. Janzen and P.S. Martin (Science Vol. 215, 1982), large grazing mammals, including extinct pleistocene elephants called gomphotheres, may have once eaten the huge gourds and dispersed the seeds in lowland forests.

The bat-pollinated flowers and large, gourd-like fruits of the calabash tree (Crescentia cujete) literally grow out of the trunk of this striking tropical tree.

The Cauliflorous Calabash Tree

Pollination And Fruit Development

Although some popular dictionaries define a vegetable as a plant part generally eaten with a main entree (but not as a dessert), all of the edible gourd relatives are really botanical fruits. They all contain seeds and develop from an ovary just below the female flower. Because they typically have a thick, leathery rind, the ripened fruits are technically referred to as "pepos." Species of cucurbits are usually monoecious, with separate pollen-bearing male flowers and seed-bearing female flowers on the same plant. There are some dioecious gourd species with separate male and female individuals, as in cottonwoods, willows, date palms, marijuana and people. Male flowers typically have 3-5 erect stamens bunched together within the corolla throat of 5 fused petals. Female flowers have 3 spreading stigma lobes and an immature fruit (ovary) below the perianth (fused petals and sepals). The spiny, sticky pollen is not windborne and requires insects for pollination. The most common pollinator insects appear to be beetles and bees. The author has observed honey bees busily collecting pollen from the showy, golden yellow male flowers of coyote melon (Cucurbita foetidissima), and also visiting the nectar-rich, receptive female flowers on the same plant. This extensive bee activity is most prevalent in the early morning hours of summer in southern California. During their floral visitations, the worker bees become covered with pollen, and readily transfer the pollen grains from flower to flower.

See Bat Pollination In Rain Forest Lianas

Wild And Squirting Cucumbers

Some members of the gourd family, such as the wild cucumber (Marah macrocarpus) do not produce the typical pepo fruit of the Gourd Family. Instead they produce seed-bearing capsules that split open at one end. Following winter and spring rains, wild cucumber vines bearing large, green spiny fruits drape the native chaparral vegetation throughout mountains of coastal southern California. Each year the vines grow rapidly from enormous subterranean tuberous burls that may be several feet in diameter and weigh 60 to 100 pounds. They are often the first plants to appear in chaparral areas that were burned during the fire season of the previous summer and fall. When the spiny fruits of wild cucumber are mature they suddenly split open with an audible cracking sound revealing several large seeds inside. A related Mediterranean species, called the "squirting cucumber" (Ecballium elaterium) explosively ejects its seeds like a miniature canon.

The climbing gourd (Alsomitra macrocarpa), native to the Sunda Islands of the Malay Archipelago, produces one of the largest winged seeds up to 5 inches (13 cm) wide inside a large, club-shaped gourd. The football-sized gourds hang from a vine high in the forest canopy, each packed with hundreds of winged seeds.

Alsomitra is one of the most unusual members of the diverse gourd family. The seeds have two papery wing membranes and become airborne like a glider when released from the fruit. This large, streamlined seed reportedly inspired the wing design of some early aircraft, gliders and kites. Although the seeds vary in shape, some of the most symmetrical ones superficially resemble the shape of the "flying wing" aircraft or a modern Stealth Bomber.

The remarkable winged seed of the tropical Asian climbing gourd Alsomitra macrocarpa. The entire seed has a wingspan of 5 inches (13 cm) and is capable of gliding through the air of the rain forest in wide circles. This seed reportedly inspired the design of early aircraft and gliders.

Seed courtesy of The Cucurbit Network P.O. Box 560483, Miami, Florida 33256 USA

The massive, subterranean tuberous burls of wild cucumber are similar to the swollen-stem (caudiciform) xerophytes that store great quantities of water and survive in extremely arid desert regions. In fact, there are several dozen perennial species of unusual caudiciform cucurbits, including the South African Gerrardanthus macrorrhizus, Cephalopentandra ecirrhosa, and Kedrostis africana, all with climbing vines growing out of a massive woody caudex. Their general growth form resembles some of the dioscoreas (Dioscoreaceae), although the two families are unrelated and undoubtedly represent examples of convergent evolution in arid regions. Examples of Dioscorea species include the African turtleback plant (D. elephantipes) and the tropical yams (D. alata and D. esculenta), the world's largest vegetables, with edible tubers weighing up to 150 pounds (68 kg). According to G.D. Rowley (Caudiciform and Pachycaul Succulents, 1987), a remarkable monotypic cucurbit Dendrosicyos socotrana grows on the island of Socotra (southeast of Yemen), with a massive tapering trunk, prickly leaves and no tendrils.

Large, woody caudex and spiny seed capsules of wild cucumber (Marah macrocarpus), a common caudiciform vine in the coastal sage scrub and chaparral of southern California. The entire caudex was about 2 feet (0.6 m) long and weighed approximately 40 pounds (18 kg). I have seen other specimens in the wild that were three times this size. In addition to surviving prolonged periods of drought, the large caudex resprouts readily after brush fires. In fact, it is one of the first plants to appear on ash-covered slopes in early spring. Unlike edible fruits of the gourd family, called pepos, the wild cucumber is a capsule that splits open at one end.

Archeological evidence from seeds, rinds, and the well-preserved stalks (peduncles) of gourds indicates that New World Indians were cultivating squashes and gourds in the Americas up to 8,000 years ago. Ancient civilizations in North and South America, such as the Aztec, the Inca, and the Maya were dependent upon a corn/bean/squash complex for their vital nutrition. According to the authority on gourds, Thomas W. Whitaker, early people in the New World first domesticated native squashes and pumpkins for their tasty seeds rather than the fruit flesh. Diet conscious people know that squashes are low in calories, high in fiber, and some are rich in vitamin A. They can be eaten raw in salads, or fried, boiled, steamed, pickled, candied, dried, baked, or made into pies and bread.

Are Pumpkins And Squash Closely Related?

There is ample archaeological evidence to show that the diverse varieties of squash and pumpkins grown today throughout the world originated from wild Cucurbita gourds cultivated in the Americas for thousands of years by native Indians. Sorting out all the varieties of edible cucurbits with their correct species identification is very difficult, although it is nicely summarized in Hortus Third by L.H. Bailey and E.Z. Bailey, 1976. A more updated summary is given in Cucurbits (Crop Production Science in Horticulture 6) by R.W. Robinson and D.S. Decker-Walters (1997). The immature, soft-rind summer squash, including the summer crookneck, straightneck, table queen (acorn), zucchini and white bush scallop, are all varieties of Cucurbita pepo. According to Smithsonian archeologist Bruce Smith and archaeologist Wesley Cowan of the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History, a variety of C. pepo native to the Ozark region of Arkansas and Missouri (C. pepo ssp. ovifera var. ozarkana) may be the living ancestor of today's many varieties of summer squash and related gourds. Their research indicates that is was cultivated in this area by native Indians more than 3,000 years ago. For decades this remarkable gourd was thought to be a garden escape by botanists, and its significance as the possible ancestor of summer squashes had not been investigated. According to S.D. Coe (Americas First Cuisines, 1994), C. pepo may have been domesticated twice in North America, a long-day variety in the eastern United States, and a short-day variety in Mexico.

According to D.S. Decker-Walters, et al. (Journal of Ethnobiology Vol. 13, 1993), squash domestication in the New World followed two major independent lineages of cultivars. Cucurbita pepo ssp. pepo, which comprises pumpkins, marrows, Mexican landraces, and a few ornamental gourds, apparently had its origins in Mexico. Subspecies ovifera, which includes scallop and crookneck squashes and most ornamental gourds, appears to be native to the Eastern United States. Although several North American varieties of ssp. ovifera exist, genetic (isozyme) comparisons indicate that the wild progenitor was indeed the Ozark gourd (var. ozarkana).

Another fascinating piece of evidence for a New World origin of squashes and pumpkins is their natural pollinators. According to S.D. Coe (1994), the original distribution of these gourds in the wild coincides with the range of various bees in the genus Peponapsis, whose sole source of nectar and pollen are the squashes. The largest present-day concentration of Peponapsis species is Mexico and Central America, with another indigenous population in South America. Today, in many areas of North America, including your vegetable garden, the introduced European honey bee (Apis mellifera) has taken over this vital pollination role.

The mature, hard-rind winter squash, including the hubbard, banana, delicious, buttercup, and turban are varieties of C. maxima. Butternut squash and winter crookneck come from C. moschata, while green-striped cushaws come from C. mixta (also listed as C. argyrosperma). The terms pumpkin and squash have no precise botanical meaning and may refer to any of the above New World species. [To enter your prize pumpkin in the official World Pumpkin Confederation Annual Weigh-Off, it must be cream-yellow to orange; if it is green to gray or mottled in color it must be entered as a squash.] Many pumpkins are varieties of C. pepo, although the largest pumpkins probably come from C. maxima. Generally, the hard-rind varieties of squash and pumpkins are best for baking and pies. Another edible New World species is the Malabar or fig-leaf gourd (C. ficifolia). Unlike the squashes and pumpkins, it is a perennial vine that thrives at higher elevations (above 3,000 feet or 1000 m). It is common around Quito, Ecuador, where a single plant may cover an entire vacant lot.

See Photos of Big Mac Pumpkin and Turban Squash

Ornamental Gourds, Spaghetti Squash,
Chayote, Loofah Sponge and Melons

Spaghetti squash and most of the colorful, warty and star-shaped ornamental gourds seen at Thanksgiving time also come from varieties of Cucurbita pepo. Since they all belong to the same species, ornamental gourds, summer squash and pumpkins may cross pollinate in your garden, resulting in some interesting hybrids. In fact, some farmers avoid planting ornamental gourds near their edible crops to prevent pollen contamination and bitter, inedible squash and melons.

Colorful ornamental gourds come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

The boiled, fibrous interior of spaghetti squash makes a delicious, low calorie substitute for pasta. In the Wayne's Word garden, the early summer fruits of a volunteer spaghetti squash did not have the characteristic fibrous flesh. Although the shape and size resembled a spaghetti squash, the flesh was more like a typical summer (scallop) squash. It came from the seeds of a true spaghetti squash that were thrown into the garden as mulch.

See A Volunteer Spaghetti Squash

Another interesting gourd from Mexico that has been cultivated since pre-Columbian times is chayote (Sechium edule). The pear-shaped, green fruits can be boiled, fried, stuffed or eaten in salads. Unlike most other members of the Gourd Family which have numerous seeds embedded in the inner fruit tissue, chayotes have only a single large seed. Since the gourd contains a single seed, the entire chayote is often planted, rather than trying to extract the seed before planting. Chayote fruits become more bitter as they mature, and for this reason they are typically eaten when they are young.

Loofah or vegetable sponges come from the fibrous interior of two species of gourds native to tropical Asia. The common vegetable sponge (Luffa aegyptiaca) has a smooth outer rind, while the fruits of L. acutangula have prominent longitudinal ridges. Although the immature loofah gourds are used for food in the orient, both species are more widely used as natural scouring pads. They have been introduced throughout the world, and common loofah gourds even hang from telephone poles in Honduras. Loofah sponges are recommended for removing dry, dead skin cells from your arms and legs, but it is doubtful that they can really break up cellulite (as some labels state).

The fabulous melon varieties, including cantaloupe, honey dew, santa claus, casaba and banana come from the Old World Cucumis melo. The remarkable variety of melons certainly includes some of the juiciest, sweetest and most delicious fruits on earth. The infamous cucumber, precursor of pickles, comes from another old world species C. sativus. Popular, fuzzy teasel gourds and horned cucumbers (hedgehog gourds) also come from two different species of Cucumis, including C. dipsaceus and C. metuliferus, respectively.

Cucumbers, Teasel Gourds & Horned Cucumbers

Genetics Of The Triploid Seedless Watermelon

Modern varieties of the watermelon are derived from the native African vine Citrullus lanatus (syn. C. vulgaris). Cultivated for thousands of years in the Nile Valley, this species still grows wild in the arid interior where it supplies native people with water during drought seasons. According to R.W. Robinson and D.S. Decker-Walters (1997), wild populations of C. lanatus var. citroides, which are common in central Africa, probably gave rise to domesticated watermelons (var. lanatus). Wild, ancestral watermelons (var. citroides) have a spherical, striped fruit, and white, slightly bitter or bland flesh. The pale flesh tastes like the rind of a typical watermelon. They are commonly known as the citron or citron melon, not to be confused with the "citron" Citrus medica of the Citrus Family (Rutaceae). The citron is also called "preserving melon" because the fruit rind is used in preserves, jellies and to make pickles or conserves. Because of its high pectin content, it is added to fruit juices to make them jell more rapidly. One plant may produce up to 100 fruits, which are commonly fed to livestock. Citron melons become weedy vines in cultivated melon fields of North America, and are unmistakable among other cucurbits because of their pinnatifid (pinnately dissected) leaves. The citron is naturalized in the Cape Region of Baja California, along with the curious teasel gourd.

See Citron Growing Wild Along RR Tracks In San Diego County

Modern triploid watermelons (with three haploid sets of chromosomes) are unable to produce viable gametes during meiosis, and much to the delight of growers, their ripened melons are seedless. [Note: The word "set" is defined here as one haploid set of chromosomes.] They are produced by crossing a tetraploid (4n) seed parent bearing 2n eggs with a diploid (2n) pollen parent bearing haploid (n) sperm. Tetraploid plants are produced by treating the terminal buds of diploid plants with colchicine, causing the chromosome number of the meristematic cells inside to double. The haploid (n) sperm from a pollen grain from the male flower of the 2n parent fertilizes the diploid (2n) egg inside the ovule of a female flower on the 4n parent. The resulting 3n zygote develops into a 3n embryo inside a seed. Planting this seed will yield a 3n watermelon plant bearing 3n seedless watermelons. The following illustration shows this cross resulting in a triploid watermelon plant:

The triploid seed will germinate and grow into a triploid plant bearing triploid male and female flowers, but the flowers will not produce viable sperm-bearing pollen or eggs because of the odd number of chromosome sets (3). With three sets of chromosomes, one set will not have a matching (homologous) set to pair up with during synapsis of prophase 1 of meiosis. This synaptic failure results in gametes that are not viable, therefore double fertilization inside the ovule does not occur and an embryo-bearing seed is not typically formed. When you buy seedless watermelon seeds, you get two kinds of seeds, one for the fertile diploid plant and one for the sterile triploid. The triploid seeds are larger, and both types of seeds are planted in the same vicinity. Male flowers of the diploid plant provide the pollen which pollinates (but does not fertilize) the sterile triploid plant. The act of pollination induces fruit development without fertilization, thus the triploid watermelons are seedless.

Not all cultivated watermelons are red. This triploid, seedless variety has sweet, yellow flesh.

Bitter Melons: Momordica charantia & M. cochinchinensis

Although the bitter gourd or bitter melon (Momordica charantia) is common throughout the New World tropics, it is actually native to the Old World. It is a common roadside weed on many islands of the Caribbean. At maturity, the warty, yellowish-orange gourd splits open revealing its striking seeds, each covered with a fleshy bright red layer called an aril. The attractive seeds are eaten and dispersed by birds. In addition to its acquired culinary value in soups and curries, the young gourds are used in folk medicine for an astonishing variety of ailments, from chronic colitis, leprosy and dysentery, to burns, gout, coughs, and severe menstrual periods. The bitter taste is caused by a group of tetracyclic triterpenes called cucurbitacins which are found in many gourd species. Although toxic in concentrated dosages, cucurbitacins may have beneficial medicinal qualities, including the treatment of tumors. They have been isolated from a number of gourd species and have been used as vermifuges, emetics, narcotics and antimalarials.

Bitter melon (Momordica charantia) that has split open, exposing several bright red seeds.

Momordica cochinchinensis

Gac seeds & fruit (Momordica cochinchinensis). The following is from Cucurbits by R.W. Robinson and D.S. Decker-Walters (1997): After removing the spiny skin, immature fruits are cooked as a vegetable or prepared in curries. Various parts of the plant have medicinal uses in China, India and elsewhere in southern Asia. The large, flattened black seeds are sculptured with jagged edges and are sold in marketplaces of Malaysia. There is considerable variation in the spininess of fruits, depending on where they are from. In fact, some fruits are barely (sparsely) spiny. Inset Image Attribution: Gac fruit in Saigon by Qoheletal (2012), Wikimedia Commons.

Dilani Wimalasiri, Terrence Piva, Sylvia Urban, & Tien Huynh. 2016. "Morphological and Genetic Diversity of Momordica cochinchinenesis (Cucurbitaceae) in Vietnam and Thailand." Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution: Volume 63, Issue 1, pp 1933.

Older references sometimes place the the Asian gourd called "luo han kuo" (also spelled luo han guo) in the genus (Momordica); however, it is listed in Cucurbits by R.W. Robinson and D.S. Decker-Walters (1997) as Siraitia grosvenorii and by S. Facciola (Cornucopia, 1998) as Thladiantha grosvenorii. Another common name is "Buddha's fruit", presumably because the pulp is extremely sweet. A glycoside in the fruit called mogrol I-IV is 150 times sweeter than sucrose and may have economic potential as a non-caloric sweetener. Luo han kuo is widely used in Chinese tonic soups, often combined with "ma tsao" from jujube fruits (Ziziphus jujuba) soaked in sugar or honey, and mixed with sweet and bitter almonds. An extract from the fruit is made into a beverage that is bottled and sold in Asian markets.

Dried luo han kuo (Siraitia grosvenorii) for sale in an Asian market.

See The Chinese Jujube (Ziziphus jujuba)

Two more unusual Asian gourds are the snake gourd (Trichosanthes cucumerina) and the wax gourd (Benincasa hispida). Both species are grown for food in tropical Asia, but become quite bitter with age. Like its common name implies, the snake or serpent gourd in very long and slender, reaching 6 feet (2 m) in length. The showy, fragrant, white flowers have striking corolla lobes fringed with long hairs. Wax gourds have a whitish coating of wax, and according to C.B. Heiser (The Gourd Book, 1979), they have actually been used to make candles. Like many cucurbits, the foliage and young gourds are hispid, a botanical term meaning rough-hairy.

The Remarkable Coyote Melon

An interesting native perennial gourd that grows wild along roadsides and open fields throughout southern California is the coyote melon (Cucurbita foetidissima). It is also called buffalo gourd or calabazilla. The coarse, gray-green foliage gives off a fetid "underarm" odor, hence the specific epithet of "foetidissima" (very fetid). Two related species (C. palmata and C. digitata) grow on the desert side of the mountains, and extend into Arizona and Mexico. The striped, green gourds are fibrous and unpalatable inside, but ground seeds were eaten by native Indians, and the dried gourds were used as rattles in dances. During fall when the melons are ripe and plentiful, the flat, watermelon-like seeds are often found in coyote scat. The coyote melon is well-adapted to dry, sandy soils with an immense, taproot that may extend several feet into the ground. The taproot often sends out many lateral, sprouting branches, and this vine can become an invasive weed in vegetable gardens. Scientists are experimenting with hybrid buffalo gourds as a food crop in the vast Middle East deserts. The seeds are a vital source of protein-rich oil in parched desert lands. The vines can be propagated readily and they resprout each year, thus eliminating the need for buying fresh hybrid seed each year. A similar sprawling, perennial melon along roadsides of Arizona and New Mexico is loco melon (Apodanthera undulata). Like coyote melon it grows from an immense taproot, but unlike coyote melon, its curious gourds have prominent longitudinal ribs. Another interesting "melon de coyote" (Ibervillea sonorae var. peninsularis) is endemic to the Cape Region of Baja California and several of the Gulf Islands. It is a climbing perennial with a large, tuberous taproot and bright red melons which are smaller than Cucurbita. Another species (I. insularis is endemic to the mid-peninsular Pacific coast and some of the adjacent Pacific islands. The Baja California peninsula also has several fascinating gourd species with minute, prickly fruits, including Brandegea bigelovii, Cyclanthera tamnoides, Echinopepon minimus, Sicyos peninsularis and Vaseyanthus brandegei.

Female flower of coyote melon (Cucurbita foetidissima) showing 3-lobed stigma. A pollen-laden honey bee is deep in this blossom sipping nectar.

The Amazing Hard-Shelled Lagenaria Gourds

Most hard-shelled gourds come from the Old World Lagenaria siceraria. So important were these gourds in the daily lives of native people, that they were introduced into human cultures throughout the world. Probably their most important use was for containers, including pots, pans and bowls, and these gourds are still used to this day in many parts of the world. For water vessels, they are still preferred over earthenware jars because they are lighter and they cool the water by evaporation. In addition to containers and eating utensils, Lagenaria gourds are used for fishing floats, rafts, pipes and snuffboxes. Many of these fascinating uses are discussed by C.B. Heiser in The Gourd Book, 1979. The familiar bottle gourds and large Indian gourds of Arizona and Mexico, including giant bule, bilobial and gooseneck gourds, come from Lagenaria siceraria. In fact, when one uses the term "gourd" they are probably referring to this widespread species. Mature Lagenaria gourds come in an astonishing array of shapes and sizes, from tiny gourds only a few inches (5 cm) long to giants over seven feet (2 m) in length. Some of the distinctive varietal forms include "dumbbell," "club", "dipper", "powder-horn", "kettle," "dolphin", "trough" and "snake" gourds. With rich soil, ample sunlight and water, they grow readily in warm temperate and tropical regions throughout the world.

Lagenaria plants in June 2007 at the Welburn Gourd Farm in De Luz, California.

Lagenaria gourds in drying bins at the Welburn Gourd Farm in De Luz, California.

Small, cleaned gourds for sale at the Welburn Gourd Farm in De Luz, California.

A beautiful, painted gourd on display at the International Gourd Festival held annually
at the Welburn Gourd Farm in De Luz, California. The artist is Marilyn Sunderland.

Engraved & burned (burilado) Lagenaria gourds from Peru. The beautiful and intricate designs were made by artist Julio Seguil Ríos using precision wood-burning tools. They are available from Señior Ríos at

Close-up view of artist Julio Seguil Ríos creating intricate designs on a small Peruvian gourd using a wood-burning tool.

A hippo gourd from "Gourd Art" in the Old Town Market, San Diego.

Lagenaria gourd with unusual shape grown at the Wayne's Word headquarters. Painted to resemble a rattlesnake by graphic artist Elaine Armstrong.

According to L.H. Bailey (The Garden Of Gourds, 1956), the original range for L. siceraria is probably tropical Africa and eastern India. Larger vines require plenty of room, and may rampage fifty feet (15 m) or more. Unlike the golden yellow blossoms of Cucurbita gourds, the large, showy flowers of Lagenaria are white. They typically open at dusk and close the following morning. Like other members of the Cucurbitaceae, this species in monoecious and the pollen from male flowers is viable on female flowers of the same plant--hence, a single seed can start a sizable population of gourds. Although moths would seem to be the likely pollinator for nocturnal gourd blossoms, C.B. Heiser (1979) found that beetles feeding inside the male and female blossoms were the most important pollinators in his garden. Then in 1997, C.B. Heiser (The Cucubit Network News Vol. 4) reported nocturnal pollination by the large hawk moths Hyles lineata and Manduca quinquemaculata. The larva of the latter species is better known to gardeners by its name of "tomato hornworm."

Hawkmoths: Night-Flying Pollinators
See The White-Lined Sphinx Moth

Dried gourd strips (Lagenaria siceraria) for sale in an Asian market. The strips are used in soups and various dishes. When seasoned with soy sauce they form one of the essential ingredients of sushi.

Yerba Mate: A Tea From Argentina

Some of the elaborate carved designs on Peruvian and African gourds (mostly varieties of Lagenaria) are absolutely amazing. In Argentina a small gourd is made into a special cup for drinking "yerba mate," a popular tea brewed from the leaves of a native holly (Ilex paraguariensis). Mate is sipped through a perforated metal straw called a "bombilla." Mate gourds are often fashioned with silver rims or collars and support bases. Old mate gourds improve the flavor of this caffeine-rich tea and mate connoisseurs would never think of using glass, pottery mugs or styrafoam cups.

Mate gourds and bombillas from Argentina. Yerba mate tea is sipped through the bombilla, a metal straw with perforations. Small pores allow the hot tea to flow into the lower, expanded end of the bombilla, but prevent leaf fragments from entering the straw.

See Photos Of Yerba Mate

Gourds To Make Music and Cover Your Penis

Musical gourds from Africa and India, such as drums, lutes and sitars have beautiful, polished finishes decorated with beads and carved designs. Some of the earliest guitars and violins in the United States were made from gourds by African slaves. Shaker gourds are probably one of the earliest of all musical instruments. In Africa, hollow gourds are covered with a loose netting strung with hundreds of beads from Job's tears (Coix lacryma-jobi). The tear-shaped "bead" is actually a hollow involucre that contained the female flowers of this pantropical grass. As the beads slap against the gourd, a loud shaker sound is produced--as good as any modern instrument for this purpose. Using the neck of the gourd as a handle, the sound is amplified by the hollow interior.

African gourds, including shaker gourd with a loose net of Job's tear beads.
The job's tear beads come from the perennial grass (Coix lacryma-jobi).

See Article About Wild Grass Called Job's Tears

But of all the uses for gourds, some of the most interesting are the "penis sheath gourds" worn by men of New Guinea. Penis gourds are also known from Africa and northern South America. There is considerable speculation among anthropologists about the purpose of such gourds, but most agree that they are more than a protective device and serve an important social function.

Men In New Guinea Wearing Penis Sheaths
Where To Purchase A Penis Sheath Gourd

References About Gourds

  1. Armstrong, W.P. 1996. "The Wild and Wonderful World of Gourds." Zoonooz 69 (10): 24-27

  2. Bailey, L. H. 1956. The Garden of Gourds. American Gourd Society, Inc., Mt. Gilead, Ohio. A good summary of the taxonomy and diversity of gourds.

  3. Coe, S.D. 1994. Americas First Cuisines. University of Texas Press, Austin.

  4. Decker-Walters, D.S., T.W. Walters, C.W. Cowan, and B.D. Smith. 1993. "Isozymic Characterization of Wild Populations of Cucurbita pepo." Journal of Ethnobiology 13: 55-72.

  5. Heiser, C. B. 1979. The Gourd Book. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma. A thorough and fascinating account of gourds from throughout the world.

  6. Heiser, C.B. 1997. "Are Bottle Gourds Moth Pollinated?" The Cucurbit Network News 4: 3.

  7. Janzen, D.H. 1983. Costa Rican Natural History. The university of Chicago Press, Chicago.

  8. Janzen, D.H. and P.S. Martin. 1982. "Neotropical Anachronisms: The Fruits the Gomphotheres Ate." Science 215: 19-27.

  9. Mordecai, Carolyn. 1978. Gourd Craft American Gourd Society, Inc., Mt. Gilead, Ohio. A delightful book about the history, cultivation and creative art with gourds.

  10. Robinson, R.W. and D.S. Decker-Walters. 1997. Cucurbits. Crop Production Science in Horticulture 6. CAB International, New York.

  11. Rowley, G.D. 1987. Caudiciform and Pachycaul Succulents. Strawberry Press, Mill Valley, California.

  12. Summit, G. and J. Widess. 1996. The Complete Book Of Gourd Craft. Lark Books, Asheville, North Carolina. A beautifully illustrated book about the history, culture and creative art using ornamental gourds (Cucurbita pepo) and hardshell Lagenaria gourds (Lagenaria siceraria).

  13. Whitaker, T.W. and R.W. Robinson. 1986. "Squash Breeding." Chapter 6 of Breeding Vegetable Crops, edited by M.J. Bassett. The Avi Publishing Co., Inc., Westport Conn.

Gourd And Seed Sources:

  • American Gourd Society, Inc.
    P.O. Box 274
    Mt. Gilead, Ohio 43338, USA
    (419) 362-6446

  • Burpee Seed Company
    300 Park Avenue
    Warminster, Pennsylvania 18974, USA
    (800) 888-1447

  • California Gourds
    31752 Pepper Tree Street
    Winchester, CA 92596
    (888) 548-7571

  • Cornucopia: Source Book For Edible Plants (1990)
    by Steven Facciola
    Kampong Publications
    1870 Sunrise Drive
    Vista, California 92084, USA

  • Gourd Ranchos
    205 Calle Linda
    Fallbrook, California 92028, USA
    (760) 728-8081

  • Native Seeds/SEARCH
    2509 N. Campbell Ave. #325
    Tucson, Arizona 85719, USA
    (520) 327-9123

  • Paso Robles Gourd & Pumpkin Farm
    101 Creston Road
    Paso Robles, CA 93446, USA
    (805) 238-0624

  • P & P Seed Co. (World Record Variety Seed)
    14050 Rt. 62
    Collins, New York 14034, USA
    (716) 532-5995

  • Penis Sheath Gourds From New Guinea:
    David Wissink
    Manager External Affairs & Sustainable Development
    Highlands Kainantu Limited
    Private Mail Bag, Lae, Morobe Province 411
    Papua New Guinea
    Phone: (675) 474-3091 Ext. 105
    FAX: (675) 474-3088
    Highlands Pacific

  • The Cucurbit Network
    P.O. Box 560483
    Miami, Florida 33256, USA

  • Go To Cucurbit Network Web Site

  • Welburn Gourd Farm
    40787 De Luz-Murrieta Road
    Fallbrook, California 92028, USA
    Phone: (760) 728-0269
    FAX: (760) 728-4271

  • World Pumpkin Confederation
    14050 Route 62
    Collins, New York 14034, USA
    (716) 532-5995

What TO DO And What NOT TO DO With Gourds:

  1. For good health and regularity, eat more squash with your main entree.

  2. If you want to lose weight, try eating spaghetti squash instead of pasta.

  3. If you are using gourds for currency, be sure to bring several shopping carts with you at all money transactions.

  4. Never encourage Africanized bees to nest in hollowed out gourds.

  5. Make sure that your gourd bird house has a hole in it.

  6. Never sip yerba mate from a styrafoam cup.

  7. When sipping yerba mate from a mate gourd, never allow the bombilla to penetrate your nasal cavity.

  8. Never point a mature squirting cucumber at someone's eyes, unless they are wearing goggles.

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