EVERY FALL IN every market there is a basket or a stand with an odd option for décor: gourds. Misshapen, particolored, vulgar in their
warts and lumps, gourds are an intriguing autumn visitor. We don't
eat them. We hardly know what to do with them. But they are so much fun, we can't leave them alone.
Gourds were the first thing I ever planted independently in a garden as a child. I put the grocery store seeds in rocky soil against the back wall, wove a little wooden trellis about a foot tall and waited for my gourds. I didn't understand much about regular watering; nevertheless, my tiny vine yielded three or four teeny gourds — each one different. I considered it
a grand success but didn't give much thought to gourds again until
last summer, when I met my dear and long-lost friend Sally at a junior high reunion. Sally is a gourd artist but, honestly, I didn't really know what that meant.
I had a lot to learn about gourds. Gourds are members of the family
Cucurbitaceae, which also includes squashes, melons, pumpkins and cucumbers. Common gourd species include Cucurbita pepo ovifera, Lugga cylindrica and Lagenaria siceraria. According to Marin gourd grower Ed Pearson, gourds are best planted in May or June — about the same time you'd put in zucchini — in full sun, the hotter the better. They do need water to produce a lot of fruit — despite a myth that they thrive on
neglect — and quite a bit of space as they vine out like pumpkins.
Once they fruit, gourds must be allowed to cure on the vine. If you harvest them while they are still soft-sided they will rot. They are usually ready for an October harvest. One plant will produce about 25 to 30 gourds — and none of them will look alike.
There are many fanciful varieties: look for "Autumn Wing," "Small Pear" or "Swan Neck" to do well in Marin. "Koshare" is a wonderful orange-and-green-banded gourd that is a bush variety if you have limited space. According to Ed Pearson, sometimes you get an interesting variety simply volunteering from the compost pile.
It turns out that gourds have quite a following and many uses. There are gourd crafters who turn gourds into utilitarian but beautiful birdhouses, water pitchers and flower pots. Sally's specialty is decoratively carved purses.
Gourds can be carved, burned or painted into an array of imaginative ornamental objects. Take a look at the photo galleries of the American Gourd Society at www.americangourdsociety.org,
or the Welburn Gourd Farm Festival at www.gourdfestival.com to see some spectacular and surprising artistic uses for gourds.
Gourds also make fascinating musical instruments beyond the shakers we recognize from preschool. Although North Americans generally use gourds as percussion instruments, traditional African gourd instruments have a startling variety. The marimba-like balafon has a wooden keyboard strung over hollow gourd resonators. The kora has a large gourd base with long plucked strings stretched across a double bridge, played upright like an odd harp. The Brazilian berimbauis a similar stringed gourd instrument that probably owes it heritage to the African kora.
If you want to make your own gourd musical instruments, there are some selected projects using household materials available on Berkeley's Caning Shop website,www.caning.com/html/tour_1.html. Look for "Making Gourd Musical Instruments." Some of the projects are simple enough for supervised children to complete. Children also can paint gourds into funny faces or turn them into turkeys or ghosts.
Okay, you've grown your gourds and carved your birdhouses, now what do you do? You go to a gourd festival, of course. There are festivals held throughout the year and around the country, including several in California. The festivals include art shows, competitions, demonstrations and sales. A good source for more information on state gourd events is the California Gourd Society, online at www.calgourd.com.
So let's get going, order our gourd seeds, and plan out a spot to grow them next summer. Who knows? Maybe you'll be autographing your gourds at the next gourd festival.