Glorious gourds Americans are starting to gain an appreciation for the vegetables that can be eaten, decorated and even made into musical instruments

Focus on gardening.

October 25, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

Nothing against broccoli and other familiar vegetables, but how many of them come with names like crown of thorns or gator gourd? How many can be sliced and eaten when young or made into a sponge when old?

Would anyone ever muse on a tomato being a spiritual icon because the shape suggests a womb? Would they make birdhouses out of corn cobs? (Well, yes. Probably someone has done that.)

For thousands of years in all parts of the world gourds have been used for everything from sacred containers to musical instruments. But only recently has the gourd started to get the respect it deserves in this country - at least in the 20th century.

Once gardening became Americans' No. 1 leisure-time activity and interest in crafting skyrocketed, an appreciation of the lowly gourd just naturally followed.

Earlier this month, an estimated 12,000 people attended the World's Largest Gourd Show in Mount Gilead, Ohio.

"Interest has really surged in the last 10 years," says Ginger Summit, author of "The Complete Book of Gourd Craft" (Lark Books, 1996), now in its eighth printing, and "Gourds in Your Garden" (Hillway Press, 1998), in its third printing. Her book on gourd musical instruments will be published next spring by Sterling.

"Their uniqueness is what's so appealing," says Jean McClintock of the American Gourd Society. "You can make a fall arrangement of them or dry one and craft with it."

With Americans decorating more for the fall holidays, ornamental gourds can be found in just about every supermarket and garden center. These small beauties in shades of green, red, gold, white and orange are not only more colorful and have more interesting shapes than pumpkins, they last longer without rotting.

How long will they last? "Through the winter," says Donna Shipp, a botanist at Homestead Gardens nursery in Davidsonville, which sells ornamental and already decorated gourds. "Probably longer than you want them to."

Ornamentals are part of a gourd family that includes cucumbers, watermelons, pumpkins and squashes. What we Americans usually mean when we refer to gourds are those members of the gourd family that dry well and are interesting looking or useful rather than edible. (Asian cooks do use young gourds in their cuisines.)

The three most common types are:

The cucurbita, or ornamental gourd;

The lagenaria, the hard-shelled gourd that dries to a wood-like texture and can be painted, carved or otherwise crafted;

The luffa, or vegetable sponge.

Many people assume that the luffa or loofa they buy at the cosmetic counter is a sea sponge, but not so. The luffa gourd is dried, the skin peeled off and the interior fiber cut into the desired size and bleached.

Gardeners in this area enjoy growing various kinds of gourds as a novelty vegetable crop, says Jon Traunfeld of the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service. Gourd vines are easy to grow as long as they have lots of light and water. You can actually shape the young gourd as it grows. (Some craft stores sell molds.)

Drying involves patience. "A gourd is 90 percent water," says McClintock. "Forget it for three or four months and eventually it will dry out. Shake it, and when it feels light it's ready. Give it a bath and any mold will scrape off."

When the gourd is dry, it has a pleasant yellowish-brown color. Some people like the natural look and simply polish their gourds with floor wax or vegetable oil to give them luster.

Crafters create Christmas ornaments or boxes out of small hard-shelled gourds, using shoe polish or leather dyes as well as paints. Elaborate decorations - feathers, beads and the like - can be applied with glue to make dolls or masks.

A larger gourd can be fashioned into a natural-looking birdhouse by cutting a hole in the side for an entrance and drilling holes in the bottom for drainage. Another small hole at the top will make it possible to suspend the birdhouse from a tree limb.

If you don't want to grow your own, and can't find the gourd of your dreams around here, growers do mail order already dried gourds for crafting. Here are some sources for information and leads to get you started:

* American Gourd Society, P.O. Box 274, Mount Gilead, Ohio 43338; e-mail: agourdcentral.com

* Tom Keller Gourds, P.O. Box 1115, West Point, Miss. 39773; 601-494-3334

* Zittel Farms, Oak Avenue and Folsom-Auburn Road, Folsom, Calif. 95630; 916-989-2633

* Ginger Summit and Jim Widess, "The Complete Book of Gourd Craft" (Lark Books, 1996) (available at Maryland libraries)

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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