The bottle gourd, also known as the hard-shell gourd or the calabash, originated in Africa. At one time how it reached North America was uncertain. Some researchers theorized that gourds drifted across the Atlantic and then spread across the Americas. Others suggested the calabash was brought to North America across an ancient land bridge created by low sea levels during the last ice age.
It has never been disputed, however, that gourds were originally transported from Africa to Asia by early humans. A collaborative research effort combining the resources of Harvard University, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, the University of Maine and Massey University in New Zealand shed new light on the question. Their analysis of the DNA sequence of ancient bottle gourds from archeological sites indicated that the bottle gourd was brought to North America by Asians at least 10,000 years ago.
In recent years, archeologists have introduced the Pacific Rim Hypothesis, which states that ancient Asians populated the Americas by traveling from Northeast Asia down the coasts of North and South America by boat rather than crossing a land bridge. A combination of sea and land travel might be closer to the truth.
Either way, the gourd, along with the dog, was domesticated long before food crops or livestock in the Americas. Its basic uses as a canteen and storage vessel made it indispensable to early peoples around the globe, and it can still be used for those purposes today, along with being made into everything from musical instruments, such as maracas and banjos, to bird houses and craft items.
The distinction should be made between hard-shell gourds and the ornamental or soft-skinned gourds popular as decorations at Halloween and Thanksgiving. Both are members of the plant group known as cucurbits that includes squash, pumpkins, zucchini, melons, cucumbers and luffa. Only hard-shell gourds can be processed and used as containers and for durable crafts. Hard-shell gourds are grown in much the same way as the other cucurbits.
Begin with well-drained soil in a sunny location. Add compost, peat moss, manure or a mixture of the three to make the soil friable and fertile. Gourds can be grown on a trellis to save space in the garden, and raising gourds above the ground prevents dark spots from contact with the soil.
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The “three sisters” planting approach combining corn, pole beans and pumpkins or squash is an alternative method. Several corn seeds are first planted in a hill of enriched soil. When the corn plants are about 6 inches high, four or five bean seeds are planted around the corn. On every seventh hill, pumpkins, squash or gourds are planted. The plants grow in harmony, and the large leaves of the cucurbit plants shade out weeds.
If you sow heirloom gourd seeds, you can save them from the gourds you grow and plant them the next growing season to produce another crop. If you choose not to grow your own, shop for gourds at roadside stands or farmers markets.
Gourds can be picked at the end of the growing season when the stems dry. After harvesting, they can take months to dry, so have patience. Cleaning them first with a mild bleach solution prevents fungus and mold from ruining gourds. Place them in a dry, well-ventilated place and turn them periodically to ensure drying. When the seeds inside rattle, they are dry enough to use. The outer skin can be removed with sand, sandpaper or a scraper. The inside can be cleaned with a scraper made from shell, stone or a sharpened washer.
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Bowls, canteens, bird feeders and other useful items can be quickly crafted from gourds. The internet is full of gourd ideas ranging from the rustic to the ridiculous. Once you settle on a design, draw the pattern on the gourd with a pencil. Next, scribe the pencil line with an awl or a similar tool and carefully cut along that line with a sharp knife or a small-toothed saw such as a hacksaw. The edges can then be smoothed with a fine wood rasp followed by sandpaper. Begin with something easy like a bowl, then let your imagination lead you to more complex projects.
Michael Eldredge began crafting gourds almost 30 years ago. While employed at the Schiele Museum of Natural History in Gastonia, North Carolina, he honed his skills and presented programs on working with gourds to adults and children. He prefers to work with tools he creates from natural materials, including stone, bone and shells. Rough-surfaced stones are used to clean the outer surfaces of gourds, while shells are used to scrape the inner surface smooth.
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He creates bone tools for scribing and carving the outer surfaces of gourds. He appreciates the feel and utility of tools patterned after those used by our forebears thousands of years ago, and feels he is continuing an ancient craft tradition.
According to Eldredge, “No two gourds are alike.” You can understand what he means when you see the variety of shapes and sizes with which he works. From a large Nigerian bushel gourd to a round gourd just inches across, his artist’s eye finds the purpose and decoration in each gourd he handles. Some of his creations are utilitarian, but to others he adds a flourish of carving and color to produce something with not just function, but beauty as well.
Ocher dug from the earth decorates some of his gourds. He prefers to paint with quality products made from minerals and organic sources such as those mixed by Natural Pigments (naturalpigments.com). He strives to use techniques from prehistory and colors drawn from natural materials add authenticity to his work.
Gourds can be dropped and broken, they can dry to the point of cracking or they can snap under the pressure. But Eldredge believes, “No part of a gourd should ever go to waste.” Scraps from a broken gourd can be repurposed into lids for gourd bottles or vials, or small measuring spoons. When a nicely crafted gourd cracks, he suggests repair in the form of decorative reinforcement that adds rather than detracts from its appearance. Model your next project after one of Eldredge’s, find a gourd design or create your own and start crafting.
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This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Winter 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.