One of the most important crops of all time is one you’ve never eaten. It’s the strange, inedible gourd, one of the first plants ever cultivated, and grown worldwide. Inedible it may be, but it’s a kitchen in itself. When mature it develops a hard shell, hollow inside except for the dried inner parts and seeds. With all that scooped out, gourds can be used as bowls for eating, cups for drinking, crocks, bins and bottles for storing, baskets for gathering, sieves for straining, pitchers for pouring. They’re made into spoons, ladles, dippers, saltshakers, funnels, measuring cups. You can even cook with them, not by putting them over a fire, but by filling them with liquid, then hot stones. They’re much lighter than pots and pans, glassware and china; they’re durable; and they’re free. They grow in the garden.
Gourds do garden work as well. Ancient gatherers scooped soil with them to unearth roots. Andean farmers still use a round gourd as a wheel for a wooden wheelbarrow. Seeds have long been stored in them. Livestock have eaten grain and drunk water from gourd troughs. African fishermen have used their buoyancy to float nets and have tossed fish into floating gourd creels. The Chinese have kept crickets in gourd cages. Hunters have carried them as powder horns or used them as duck blinds. Submerged in a marsh beneath a floating gourd they could peer through holes as their prey paddled within snatching distance.
Let a gourd dry on the vine and it rattles when you shake it. Little ones, narrow at one end and round at the other, make perfect baby rattles. But why stop there? You can create a whole percussion band with gourd maracas and gourd drums, cut off at the top and covered with hide. And let’s bring in the string section! A sitar is a gourd with a hole over which strings are stretched, then plucked, the sound made resonant. Gourd banjos, guitars, violins, harps and lutes work the same way, as does the thumb piano with its plucked wood or metal keys. Woodwinds? Of course! Chinese and Indian flutes in which cane pipes are fitted into a gourd soundbox.
Gourds have provided transportation by buoying rafts. They’ve cradled babies. Served as washtubs. The luffa gourd, porous when soaked, peeled and dried, becomes a washcloth, exfoliant and pot scrubber — or insulation, padding and stuffing. The spiny teasel gourd raises the nap in wool. Small, smooth ones serve as darning balls. Gourds become siphons, tobacco boxes, pipes for smoking, flowerpots, vases, lanterns, canteens. They’re worn as hats, jewelry, masks and penis sheaths. At a point in Haiti’s history they were used as money; and the Haitian unit of currency is still called the “gourde.” And yes, a few gourds can even be eaten. A type of Indian snake gourd, picked green, is an ingredient in curries.
In all their guises gourds have inspired artists. Designs are still painted, scratched and burned onto them by craftspeople everywhere. Their shapes alone are beautiful, from the huge round bushel gourds to goose gourds, which need only a pair of eyes to look just like their namesakes. Most hard-shelled gourds are variations of the species Lagenaria siceraria, but there also are small flamboyant gourds grown mostly as household ornaments. Usually sold in mixed colors, shapes and textures — spiny, warty and smooth — they belong to the species Cucurbita pepo, the same as the familiar summer squash.
I once grew “Crown of Thorns” gourds for a September wedding, turning the little colored globes, topped with a ring of blunt points, into candle-holders. Because gourds are fun and idiosyncratic, kids love to grow them, and they are an easy project. Similar in culture to winter squash, they are less demanding since flavor is not an issue. Though heavy while growing, many can be trellised and even grown on an arbor for shade. Picked when the stems wither, they are then cured until a rattling noise tells you they are dry.
Oddly, one ancient use for gourds has increased in significance. Long ago, Native American tribes began hanging gourds from trees as nests for birds — especially purple martins who devour mosquitoes and garden pests. These birds, colony-dwellers, also helped drive away crows and other species that raided newly sown seeds. The “birdhouse gourd” was used — a type with a long neck and round bottom — with a 2-inch hole bored as an entrance. The alliance between gardener and bird became so strong that purple martins in the Eastern U.S. no longer use natural nesting sites (old woodpecker holes). Instead, they form neighborhoods with humans, safer from predators such as raccoons, and nesting in fabricated “martin houses,” or gourds. Gourds are their first choice. Once again, this odd fruit has become indispensable.
Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”