Are Gourds Edible: Learn About Eating Decorative Gourds

By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist

Fall signals the arrival of gourds. Lots of gourds in every shape, size, and color. These varietal types of cucurbits are related to squash and pumpkins but are generally used as décor. Can you eat gourds though? Let’s learn more.

Can You Eat Gourds?

Gourd edibility is negotiable, but history indicates that some were eaten, at least in part. First, we have to determine what is a gourd before going into ways to eat gourds.

You can probably find a gourd shaped like anything you can imagine. Whether warty, smooth, or bearing strange protuberances, gourds exceed the imagination and give wings to creativity. But are gourds edible? That is a subject for debate, considering the interior flesh is minimal and hardly worth the effort.

If you are really desperate, you might consider eating decorative gourds. After all, they are usually sold in the produce section. Many native tribes used the seeds, but there is no record of wild gourd flesh being eaten.

This is probably due to the unpalatability, which is said to be bitter and tart. Additionally, most gourds are small, and there is relatively little flesh to make the effort of cracking one open sensible. Decorative gourds are dried, and the pith is shriveled and hard. For these reasons, eating decorative gourds is probably inadvisable.

Gourd Edibility – Are There Ways to Eat Gourds?

The flesh won’t kill you and probably has some nutrient benefits just like squash. If you wish to attempt the dish, select young fruit that hasn’t fully ripened and is not dry. You can prepare it just like you would pumpkin, by paring away the rind and removing the seeds.

Bake or steam it and season the heck out of it to cover up any bitter flavor. You can also cut up the flesh and boil it for 15-20 minutes or until tender. For seasoning, think bold flavors like those used in Asian or Indian cuisine which will help disguise any harsh notes.

The most commonly eaten gourds are Asian. Again, they are picked young and under ripe to ensure less harsh flavor. Among these are sponge (or Luffa) and bottle (or Calabash). There is also an Italian gourd called cucuzza.

The Turk’s Turban is actually quite delicious with a delicate, sweet flavor and soft flesh when cooked. However, for overall taste and ease of preparation, standard squash varieties are better used in cooking. Leave the ornamental varieties for décor, bird houses, or as sponges.

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Birdhouses made from gourds are a fun wintertime craft and make a great project to do with kids. There are several varieties of gourd which make great birdhouses -- You can sometimes buy them at your local farmers' market, or if you're in it for the long haul you can grow your own. If you are taking the true DIY route, make sure to hang the gourds in a dry place after harvesting them in the fall. They should be moisture-free before you start this instructable. Depending on your climate, this could take an entire year.

For this project, you'll need

-Dry Gourds
-Sander or Sandpaper and patience
-1" Forsner Bit
-A small eye screw for each gourd
-A length of cord or wire for each gourd
-All-weather paint (We used white spray paint)

Gorgeous Gourds

In the world of vegetable growing, gourds have earned a secure niche. These members of the cucumber, melon, and squash family are grown for their decorative and utilitarian qualities rather than for their edible ones. The best known and most versatile are the hard-shelled gourds (Lagenaria siceraria) , so named because their shells dry to a hard surface that can be treated for many different uses. These familiar, durable gourds are used around the world to make everything from containers and utensils to water dippers, smoking pipes, musical instruments, and works of art.

There are four main types of hard-shelled gourds. Basket gourds have large, bulbous bases and no neck. Bottle gourds develop two distinct bulbous ends with a constriction between them. Dipper gourds feature long, thin necks and a small bulblike base at the blossom end. Snake or siphon gourds have long, tubular necks and no bulbous base. Within each of these types are many variations, each with its own particular shape. Before you plant, decide which is the right kind for the uses you have in mind.

Growing Hard-Shelled Gourds

Plant and grow hard-shelled gourds as you would winter squash. The sprawling plants grow best in warm-summer conditions, requiring 120 to 140 frost-free days to mature. To grow these gourds to maturity where the growing season is 120 days or less, start seed indoors and use season-extending devices, such as floating row covers, in fall if necessary.

In cool-summer climates, preheat the soil with black plastic mulch four weeks before your last frost date, when you can set out seedlings. Start seedlings in individual pots indoors at the same time you set out the plastic.

Where summers are warmer and longer, sow seeds outdoors after all danger of frost has passed, in full sun and in soil amended with compost or manure. Sow two seeds in hills spaced 8 feet apart, or sow in rows with plants spaced 4 feet apart. The seeds have particularly thick skins to hasten germination, nick them with a file before planting to help water penetrate the seed coat.

Cover the seedlings with a floating row cover, especially during chilly spring nights. Keep plants well watered. In warm areas, preserve soil moisture with a 2- to 4-inch layer of hay, straw, or leaf mulch. When the vines begin to run, fertilize with 3 pounds of 10-10-10 per 100 square feet of garden, or use fish emulsion. Once the gourds have set, don't apply high-nitrogen fertilizer.

Gourds are slow starters, but once the heat of summer hits, the vines grow by leaps and bounds. When vines growing on the ground reach 10 feet long, snip off the growing tip to stimulate the formation of side shoots (laterals). Gourds, like all squash family crops, produce separate male and female blossoms on each plant, and these shoots produce the most female flowers, so the more branching, the more fruits. Pruning also keeps the vines under control.

Some gourds, such as the bottle and dipper types, grow best on trellises. Let the vines climb naturally, and position the fruits so they can hang unobstructed. Trellised vines are not only attractive, but they produce straighter and cleaner fruits than vines grown on the ground. Be sure the trellis is sturdy, especially in windy areas, since an individual plant can be huge--vining up to 40 feet.

Some of the heavier basket-type gourds may need to be supported with a sling old pantyhose are an inexpensive means of support. On the other extreme, some kinds of mini gourds can be grown in containers. Although smaller, they're still aggressive growers, so you'll need to be more diligent about trellising and watering.

On a trellis, remove all the side shoots, and train the main stem up the trellis post. Once it reaches the top of the trellis, clip the main stem and allow the laterals to form and fill out the top of the trellis.

Gourds on trellises are easy to shape by tying soft, stretchy strings around young fruit and then bending or constricting them by applying slight pressure. Some gourds can be placed in molds or jars and will take the shape of the container. Be careful to select the right-sized container for the mature size of the gourd, or the container-bound fruit will be damaged.

Hard-shelled gourds produce large white flowers that open at night. It's not clear which insects pollinate these flowers, but if your baby gourds are shriveling and dropping off the plant, you may need to hand-pollinate the flowers in the evening shortly after they open. Some growers like to let only a few gourds set and then snip off all others, since the first fruits to set produce the largest gourds with the thickest skins. In cool climates, snipping off late-setting fruits will redirect the plant's energy to maturing the first few fruits before frost.

Pests and diseases that affect gourds are similar to those afflicting other squash family crops they include downy and powdery mildew, cucumber beetles, vine borers, and aphids. Generally, the techniques and products recommended for controlling these pests on cucumbers and melons will also be effective on gourds.

Harvest hard-shelled gourds only after they mature on the vine. They are ready when the stem and tendril next to the gourd have browned, and the gourd's skin has begun to turn an ivory color and feels firm. Cut off the gourds, leaving at least 2 inches of stem on the fruit.

Mature gourds can withstand frost, but it may affect the skin color. After curing, gourds harvested before frost tend to be tan or mahogany, while those harvested after frost will take on a curly maple appearance. It's best to pick the gourds as soon as the vines are dead (especially on trellised vines that may not be able to support heavy fruits), and to move the gourds indoors to a dry, well-ventilated place for curing and drying.

Bring harvested gourds into a cool (50° to 60° F), well-ventilated room. Clean away any soil from the surface, and wipe the gourds with a mild bleach solution (1 ounce liquid bleach to 2 quarts water). Don't try to save any gourds that have cracked or broken skin, since they will rot eventually. To cure the gourds, place them, not touching, on a wire-mesh or slotted tray out of direct sun.

Depending on the gourd's size, shape, and skin thickness, it can take up to six months to completely dry inside. As gourds dry, they may develop a fuzzy white growth on the shell. This is natural and, as long as the shell isn't soft, there's no cause for alarm. You can remove the mold by periodically wiping the shell with the mild bleach solution, or leave the mold to form interesting patterns on the skin. The gourd is finished drying when it feels much lighter and the outer skin peels away to reveal a brown or tan inner shell. You will also hear the seeds rattle inside.

To hasten the drying process, slice off the top of the gourd right after harvest, and scrape out as much of the seedy pulp as you can without harming the shell. Then fill the inside with water, and let sit for a week. The remaining flesh will turn gelatinous and mucky but will be easier to scrape out.

Surface Treatments for Creating Decorative Gourds

Transforming an ungainly gourd into a graceful ornament is easier than many gardeners imagine.

Each of the surface treatments described below requires little skill only a few basic hand tools and some supplies, available from a craft or hardware store, are necessary. Before applying any surface treatment, be certain that the gourd is properly cured.

Make a leaf bowl by cutting a leaf design out of the gourd with a hand saw. Scrape out the pulp, and sand the soft interior to a smooth finish, then cover it with a decoupage of leaf designs cut from decorative tissue paper. Stain both the inside and outside surfaces before varnishing the whole bowl.

Apply delicate gold patterns to gourds with a pen that produces a fine, opaque line for maximum coverage and control. For added effect, glue gold-colored cord around the rim.

Create a burnished look to your gourd by first darkening it with black shoe dye, then covering it with gold shoe polish. As a final touch, add black leather trim and gold beads.

Make a simple pitcher by staining a gourd with white shoe polish, which highlights the natural patterns on the gourd's surface. Then glue nylon cord around the top rim and the bottom, leaving enough between the top and bottom to form a handle. The cord at the bottom acts as a base.

Make a pitcher from two gourds: a bottle and a dipper, trimmed with a crafting knife and handsawn to fit together. File and sand any rough edges, glue the parts together and fill in any remaining seam with putty. Create a coppery surface using an acrylic metallic paint rubbed with black shoe polish.

Use marking pens to decorate gourds. This allows for flexibility, freeform design, and many color choices. Unfortunately marking pens, even permanent kinds, will fade over time.

To learn about growing and using the many different kinds of ornamental gourds, consult Gourds in Your Garden: A Guidebook for Home Gardeners, by Ginger Summit (Hillway Press, 1998 $20) and The Complete Book of Gourd Craft, by Ginger Summit and Jim Widess (Lane Books, 1996 $27).

Photography by Sabin Gratz/National Gardening Association and Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association

What Can You Make With Gourds?

Dipper gourds, bottle gourds, and birdhouse gourds typically last for multiple seasons when dried thoroughly to extend their use as a storage container or utensil type tool.

These gourds come in a vast array of sizes and shapes. Some dipper gourds have a stripe pattern, others have distinctive ridges, while others have little nubbins that resemble warts.

Dipper gourds are best used to tote water. Other items and smaller varieties of the Lagenaria variety of gourds are easier to craft into spoons and other utensil style tools, but dipper gourds can be used for utensil making, as well.

Making a Container

For centuries, gourds have been used to make bowls and dishes for daily use, seed growing containers or flower pots, musical instruments, as well as decorative birdhouses.

Before you can turn a gourd into a functional container, display piece, or a combination of the two, you must first cut it open and clean it out.

Step 1. To cut open a gourd you should first draw a guideline in pencil or chalk to ensure the placement and design style you want is achieved.

Step 2. To cut open the hard, dried, and mature gourd, you can use a hand saw – hacksaw, rotary cutting power tool, or a large diameter drill bit.

The choice of cutting tool will depend on not only the size and depth of the cut you need, but also on the purpose the gourd will be tasked with. For example, I would recommend using a drill bit if the gourd is going to be used as a birdhouse.

Step 3. Next, the dried flesh and seeds must be removed. Using a metal spoon, clay sculpting tool, or a scalpel can help dislodge stubborn pieces of gourd interior.

It will be more difficult to remove the flesh and seeds if you only cut a small opening into the gourd.

To make the process less frustrating, I strongly suggest soaking the opened gourd in warm water for a half an hour before scooping.

If you use this handy trick, you will have to wait two to three hours for the gourd to dry out completely before moving onto making any decorative elements on the gourd.

Step 4. The interior of the gourd, at least the portion that will be exposed by a hole opening, should also be sanded either by hand, or with a sanding attachment for a power drill.

Making Other Things from Gourds

Gourds can even be turned into lamp bases. This is probably not the most common crafty usage for gourds, but the end result can be stunning.

If you are really artsy and are dreaming of making unique one-of-a-kind gifts from the natural bounty your homestead offers, consider carving onto a gourd vessel you are making.

You can freehand a design onto a gourd, or use a stencil to trace it out. Some beautiful gourds pots have been made that are both painted or stained and feature some carved elements either throughout or only at the open top.

You can make a decorative vessel of a flower pot with gourds, as simple or as ornate as you wish. The woman in the video below purchased a pre-cut gourd and did not grow her own, but the rustic look she created using liquid ink dyes follows the same application process.

You can also include filigree work, macrame, or simple braided twine to make a hanging gourd pot – or a foraging container that slips over your shoulder.

Drums are one of the simplest and most fun musical instruments to make out of a gourd – especially if you are working on the project with children.

Because nearly anyone can keep the beat by tapping on a drum, you do not have to be any type of real musician to pick up this homemade instrument that was grown on your homestead, and have a good time.

If there is a musician in your family or group of homesteading friends, perhaps he or she would love a gourd banjo or a gourd dulcimer to use the next time they play a tune.

These instruments are more intricate to make and require a fairly large gourd, but with some patience and time, making a basic banjo that you decorate yourself, could become a cherished family heirloom.

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