The pioneer mother, long before Civil War days, did not have aluminum or copper containers for sugar, salt or coffee. The fact is, she did not even have the old fashioned tin clipper! The housewife of her time was trained to make such utensils herself. Yes, she was the original “do-it-yourself woman.” How did she make such things she needed for her large family? Easy and simple… by raising gourds.
If you travel in the south or the west, deep in the white oak timber land of the Ozarks, in California, or even into Old Mexico, you will find many gourds used in those sections. And until you have had a cool drink of water from a spring or deep well on a hot day, drunk out of a dipper gourd, you simply haven’t enjoyed a drink of water. Gourds have a history dating back to Bible times.
You will find gourds mentioned in Jonah, chapter four, verses five to ten, telling about Jonah sitting under a gourd as he awaited the destruction of Nineveh. Some Bible students think it was the castor oil plant with a wild cucumber vine growing over it that shaded Jonah, although the text plainly reads GOURD. I am neutral about that argument, but anyway, gourds do grow wild in that part of the world.
The botanical name for gourds is Cucurbitacea which includes pumpkins, squash, cucumbers and melons. There are two classes of gourds, large fruited and the small, ornamental kinds. Both types are quite useful.
The large fruited type can be made into flower vases, canister sets or hanging baskets for growing ivy or other vines. You can paint or enamel them so they cannot be discerned from pottery and they are just as useful. The dishcloth gourd has a fibrous center that can be removed and used as a cleaning sponge. The dipper type is not only good for dippers; from it you can build a bird house for the wrens by boring a hole the size of a quarter and placing a small perch under it.
The small or ornamental types are quite unique, having odd shapes and warty knobs all over them. Some are natural colored or orange and green combinations. Those not colored can be enameled with any color or design you may wish. Clear white varnish or shellac should be placed over all as a protection and to make them shiny, or you can use a clear wax for the finish.
In Old Mexico and California you will find an ornamental charm string of the small type gourds hanging on the front door or walls of the living room like holly wreaths at Christmas time. The odd shaped and warty gourds fit nicely in a cornucopia arrangement. Brightly painted, they can be used as Christmas tree ornaments. There is another type gourd that would interest the man of the house. It is the calabash type from which wonderful smoking pipes are made. They are not adapted for growing in the northern states as the season is not long enough, but in the south one can grow one’s own pipe. You can buy such pipes today in any large tobacco store in most cities.
How to Grow Them
The culture of gourds is quite simple, about the same as melons or pumpkins. In the latitude of Kansas City they must be planted May first to get a long season of growth. Farther north, one must plant a seed or two in a large pot and not transplant outdoors until all danger of frost is past. The soil must be rich. Put almost a bushel of well rotted organic material in a large hole, then fill it over with good earth to make a raised mound so there is ample drainage. Gourds must be where they have sun all day long, and plenty of water during long droughts. If rotted organic material is unavailable, mix balanced fertilizer into the soil for plant food. Cover the seed only 3/4 inch with fine soil. Plant the seed three inches apart, then thin to at least 10 inches or more when the second leaves appear.
Let your gourds run on a fence, up a trellis or on a porch and you can also put a garden retaining walls… just so they get plenty of sun. I have seen them grown on a dead tree and they simply covered it. The dipper type gourds have white flowers that bloom in late evening and at night like a moonflower. The small types have a large golden yellow bloom like a squash.
Allow to Harden
A few suggestions are in order and I put them last so you will not forget them. They are quite important: The fruits should be mature and hard to the fingernail before harvesting. Gather before frost with a portion of the stem attached, handling carefully to avoid bruising. Wash the surface, dry thoroughly for a few weeks in a warm room, then wax, shellac, or varnish for best appearance. If you intend to enamel or paint first, add the varnish, wax or shellac afterward.
If you are lucky enough to have a great grandma, I’ll wager she could tell you a lot of things about gourds that I never heard of. She simply had to know her gourds!
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