By Susan Carty, Professor of Biology, Heidelberg College & Lisa Roberson
Gourds have been around for thousands of years, but I still get the age old question "What is a gourd?" When most Amercans think of gourds, they think of the small, brightly colored items in the produce section around Thanksgiving. For others, they think of the dry, thick-walled raw material used for craft projects.
Both kinds of gourds are cousins in the same family, the Cucurbitaceae. In addition to gourds, the family includes cucumbers, melons, edible summer and winter squashes, and many exotic members. For the most part, the family can be recognized as producing fruit on herbaceous (dying back at the end of the season) vines with tendrils, and having seprate male and female flowers. There are not many vining families with tendrils. The grape family (Vitaceae) has a woody vine with tendrils, but if you see a green vine with tendrils, it's probably Cucurbitaceae.
A gourd is a hollow, dried shell of a fruit in the Cucurbit family. The shell of the gourd, when dried, has a wooden appearance. Gourd "wood" is basically cellulose that has no grain, varying in thickness from paper-thin to well over an inch. As you have seen or will see at various gourd shows , there is no limit to what can be done with a gourd. It's not just for birdhouses and dippers anymore. The harder the outer shell lends the gourd to a wide variety of creative appeals, including carving, musical instruments, bread warmers, flower arrangements, toys, water carriers, Christmas ornaments,woodburning (pyrography), and much, much more. Gourds are the earliest plant species domesticated by humans and was originally used by man as containers or vessels before clay or stone pottery. The original and evolutional shape of clay pottery is thought to have been molded on the shape of certain gourd varieties. Much of the same tools that are used in wood working can be used on a gourd. Leather dyes, silk dyes, an even shoe polish can be used on gourds. Gourd art continues to expand more and more each year. You never know where gourds and gourd art will show up. See how many places you can spot it......