The enduring appeal of gourds and their cousins
By: Susan Jones
| Posted: Saturday, Oct 12, 2013 06:00 am
The first time you spy a Ghosty Gourd growing in a garden, you might think you’ve been transported to the ocean.
“What is it?” you might think.
A starfish? An octopus?
It can’t be an octopus because the creamy-coloured thing has more than eight digits. And for goodness sake, it’s October and you’re in the midst of a Bon Accord pumpkin patch, not an ocean.
So you pick the gourd and though the vines from which it grew are frozen and prickly, the white gourd is hard shelled and has a smooth plastic feel to it. You are compelled to touch it, as if to assure yourself that it is real. Is it animal? Vegetable? Mineral?
Then you look at the Ghosty’s neighbours and see a field full of equally weird-looking gourds. Some are covered in warts and bumps. Some, like the Aladdin’s Turban gourd, have pumpkin-coloured tops that sit on striped orange and white bases.
The Winged Warty Thing variety of gourds have jig-jagged forest-green stripes and patterns. No matter the variety, these gourds come in a Dr. Seuss-like arrangement of shapes and sizes, so while some fit in your hand, others are heavy and awkward to lift.
“The fascinating thing about growing gourds is each one is its own creation. No two gourds are ever the same,” said Tam Andersen, owner of Prairie Gardens and Greenhouses Adventure Farm.
This month, Andersen is in the process of harvesting hundreds of gourds. She explained that this year’s crop grew partially from seed that she sowed in June, but some also grew from the leftover that she left to compost in the field last year.
“The seeds had cross-pollinated and some appear to be a cross between a pumpkin and a gourd,” she said.
Gourds, pumpkins, watermelons, cucumbers and squash are all kissing cousins and are part of the same Cucurbitaceae botanical family.
Gourds may be easily grown in Alberta’s climate, but you have to check the seed package to find out how many days it will take from the time they are planted until they mature. Gourds that mature in 80 or 90 days will likely be OK here but those that take more than 100 days to ripen will have a poorer chance.
“Of the members in that family, zucchini are easiest to grow, followed by cucumbers, then pumpkins, then gourds. Melons are the toughest to grow here,” said Jim Hole, of Hole’s Greenhouses and Gardens.
This year a warm September aided the growth of gourds, Hole said, adding that it isn’t the number of daylight hours that makes a difference. Instead, it’s how much heat the plants get.
“If you think about where these things grow best, they have warmer nights, especially in the fall. It’s all about the temperature and an extra two or three degrees at night makes a big difference,” Hole said.
Gourds grow best if they are planted straight into the ground, but again, warmth is key, so it’s best to wait until early June to plant them.
“The plants in that family are not good transplanters. You can try to start them inside but they get all stretchy and floppy. They do better right in the ground, and the hotter the better. If I were planting them, I’d probably start them with a little mini-tent of plastic,” Hole said.
Gourds need space to grow and they will sprawl all over the vegetable patch. Some of the vines extend two or three metres in length. They can be grown on a trellis, but if you try that the hanging fruit will become more uniform in shape. The charm of most of these unusual gourds is the twisted shapes that develop when they grow on the ground.
Though gourds are experiencing newfound popularity as Halloween decorations, they have been grown throughout the world for centuries and perhaps millennia. Some Internet sources suggest that gourds may have been the first plants cultivated by humans.
If that’s true, you have to wonder why, because gourds are inedible. Nonetheless, many cultures have used dried gourds as rattles, as vessels to hold things and as birdhouses. The luffa gourd is used to this day as a bathing sponge. Anyway you look at them, gourds are fascinating.
“They are doing so much in the way of hybridizing now, that every year they are coming out with new varieties,” Andersen said. “Most of them are so prolific and grow a lot of fruit and kids love them. If you dry them, and give them a coat of shellac, they’ll hold their colour and last for a long time.”