The gourd family has about 800 species noted mainly for their usefulness more than as a vegetable.
Gourds is a term that is loosely applied to some, or all, of the fruits from the Cucurbitaceae family, depending on the country.
In North America, gourd is used when referring to hard-shelled squash grown for ornamental or useful purposes.
Europeans are less restrictive in that the term can mean winter melons or the round gourd, tinda, which is a very small watermelon.
The gourd presents an interesting field of study for historians, botanists, and anthropologists alike as they are the plants which raise the most controversy over pre-Columbian contacts between Africa and South America since uses for them have been numerous and surprising.
Early evidence for the cultivation of this tropical plant comes from South America around 7000 BCE, but it is thought to have originated in Africa south of the Sahara or in India. It is speculated that it may have been swept out to sea and transplanted itself on other lands since the seeds are known to survive seawater for over seven months.
Many gourds are dried and used to store water and food, while others are used for dippers, cups, and spoons. The wide range of musical instruments that has been produced from the gourd is astounding.
Other of the more interesting uses include supports for rafts, homes for Chinese cricket champions (real crickets, not the game), and genital guards.
Gourds can be trained to grow into various shapes. To induce a longer neck, a small cord was tied around the developing fruit. In 1978, a niece of the botanist, Gerrit Parmile Wilder, recorded this interesting way that her uncle experimented with shaping gourds.
“At the bottom of his large garden he once grew some gourds. Without explaining to the outstanding socialites just why he wanted one stocking from each, he raised a lovely crop of most unusually shaped gourds, all labelled in large letters easily seen from the street. There was the Agnes Galt, the Molly Wilder, the Sarah Wilder, the Ida von Holt, the Helen Carter, and many others. The stockings had been used to train the growing gourds and the results were extraordinary! My mother had awfully skinny legs, but some of the others did not; and the display caused a near riot.” (Davidson, p. 347)
Angled loofah/luffa, ridged loofah, ridged gourd, silk gourd, angled gourd, silk squash, Chinese okra, sing qua, tori or toray (Indian), see gua (and other Chinese variations), patola (Philippines) (Luffa acutangula – Family Cucurbitaceae)
This unusual plant originated in Northwest India and, from there, has spread over the whole of Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. In spite of its low nutritional value, it is still a popular vegetable in countries where it is cultivated, particularly India. It is a vigorous climbing plant which is trained around supports. Although the fruit can grow up to three feet in length, it is usually harvested young and used in curries. The fruit is characterized by ten raised ridges, which run its length and should still be soft. They harden as the fruits mature, while the seeds develop unpleasant qualities, making the fully ripe fruit bitter and inedible. The young fruits are good eaten raw like a cucumber or cooked in stir-fries much like a zucchini. When preparing, the ridges should be thinly peeled, but the remaining skin can be eaten.
Bitter gourd, bitter melon, bitter cucumber, balsam pear, karela and kaveli (Indian), foo gua (and Chinese variations), ampalaya (Philippines), kho-qua (Vietnamese), balsamina (Caribbean Spanish) (Momordica charantia – Family Cucurbitaceae)
Spiny bitter gourd, kantola
These gourds are two of the most commonly eaten of the forty-two or more species of the genus Momordica. Obviously, the bitter gourd is a vegetable whose various names refer to the high concentrations of bitter constituents. Although grown in the US, it remains relatively unusual, except in cultural markets; but it is an important vegetable in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, China, the Philippines, and the Caribbean. Small quantities are exported from Thailand, India, and Kenya. The Dutch have been cultivating it under glass, mainly to cater to immigrants from former Dutch colonies. The fruits vary in size, shape, colour, texture, and degree of bitterness.
Ripe bitter melons are yellow to reddish orange in colour and have pale, firm flesh. The Indian is darker and thinner than the Chinese, while the Thai is white when immature. If left on the plant to ripen completely, the fruit bursts open.
Long bitter gourds are harvested before they are ripe and when a light green. Their skin is relatively smooth, but contain knobbly ridges running lengthwise. The light brown seeds are embedded in white, cottony flesh; but the seed coverings do taste pleasantly sweet and are often used as a condiment.
The bitter gourds can grow to a length of a foot on three foot-long shoots. The vines are usually trained to grow over trellises or frames so that the fruit is able to hang down.
More common bitter gourds are very spiny and bumpy on the surface, and range in varying shades of green. Yellow skins usually indicate that they are too ripe, causing the flesh to turn spongy and soft and increasing the bitter taste.
Both varieties require salting before cooking to remove the bitterness, but the spiny bitter gourd requires less than the three or four hours required for the bitter gourd.
It is a good vegetable to hollow out and fill; but also delicious is curries, pickled, stir-fried, and salads; but it needs to be blanched before using as it cannot be eaten raw.
Bottle gourd, dudi/doodhi, calabash, cucuzza, tennerumi, white-flowered gourd, trumpet gourd, zucca lunga, Hercules war club, hairy gourd, lokhi, lauki, opo squash, po gwa, woo lo gwa (Lagenaria siceraria – Family Cucurbitaceae)
The bottle gourd is one of the oldest cultivated plants in the world. Remains have been found in Mexican caves dating from 7000 BCE and in Egyptian tombs from the 4th millennium BCE. The seeds are said to have traveled on ocean currents from tropical Africa to South America, where archaeological finds suggest that it was already in Peru 12,000 years ago. Today, it is cultivated in all tropical and subtropical regions.
The gourd plant is a vigorous climber, quickly reaching lengths of thirty feet and more. It is grown for its edible young fruits, shoots, and seeds.
There are many varieties, each differing greatly in shape and size. Bottle gourds can be as small as four inches or as large as three feet and weighing over two pounds. The longest gourd is recorded as being almost 111 inches.
They have little nutritive value, although they do have moderate amounts of Vitamins C and B complex and a few proteins. The fruit pulp around the seeds has been used as an emetic and a purgative and sometimes given to horses. The juice is mixed with lime and used on pimples and, when boiled in oil, used on areas of rheumatism. Seeds and roots were used to treat “dropsy” (an abnormal collection of fluid within a body cavity), and the seed oil taken internally to treat headaches.
The leaves are broad and oval with wavy margins; and the fragrant, white flowers open only in the evenings. Its names are derived from such selected forms as bottle, trumpet, and club, and relate to their use and appearance.
The bottle gourd has a long narrow neck; but many develop into varying shapes and sizes, with some reaching six feet in length.
The young fruits are edible, but the mature shells become extremely hard when dried. The very tough, watertight shells are then hollowed out and used as bottles, kitchen utensils, musical instruments, floats for fishermen, and even as gunpowder flasks.
In India, bottle gourds traditionally provide the body for a musical instrument known as the sitar.
The leaves were used by natives as a protective charm when elephant hunting.
The fruits are pale green to cream or yellow, with a narrow neck. The inner flesh is white and spongy, containing flat creamy-coloured seeds. Only young, unripe small fruits with soft rinds are eaten.
The firm flesh is very mild, tasting reminiscent of cucumber, and is good stuffed and then baked, but can also be prepared in the same manner as summer squash. It is not suitable for eating raw. These gourds are slender and light green.
Their close relationship to the zucchini is revealed in their appearance and taste. This variety can be prepared with the skin on, if young, and is exported mainly by India; but Sicily also has especially long varieties.
Mild, versatile, and adaptable, the bottle gourd appears on daily menus from India to Italy and from China to Mexico. They are also eaten around Naples, Sicily, and in Sardinia but rarely elsewhere.
The traditional squash preserve called zuccata, or in Sicily, cucuzzata, is made from the mature gourd. When used in cooking, young fruits are peeled and any large seeds removed. It is then sliced, diced, or cubed and sautéed with spices to accompany curries.
Young shoots and leaves can be steamed or lightly boiled. In Africa, the seeds are used in soups; but, in India, they are boiled in salt water and eaten as an appetizer. The seed oil is also extracted and used for cooking.
Fuzzy/hairy melon, hairy cucumber (squash, melon, or gourd), wax gourd, winter gourd (melon), ash gourd, ash pumpkin, white gourd, Chinese squash, Chinese preserving melon, Buddha’s hand gourd, mo gwa/dung gua (and other Chinese variations), petha (Indian), kundol (Philippines) (Benincasa hispida – Family Cucurbitaceae)
At first glance, this gourd looks like a prickly form of bottle gourd. However, those are smooth while this type is a fuzzy melon that plays a significant role in the diet of the countries where it is traditionally grown: China, India, Japan, and Southeast Asia.
Fuzzy melon is the name given to wax gourds which have been harvested young when their hairy down covers them much like a newly born infant. The whitish bloom of the wax gourd covers only the fully grown fruit and is responsible for its particularly good keeping qualities.
Originating from China, the fuzzy melon has been cultivated there for more than 2,300 years. The Americans and the Dutch also cultivate it on a small scale; otherwise, in the West, it is imported.
Fuzzy melons come in a variety of shapes ranging from spherical, to ovid, to an elongated sphere with a slightly nipped “waist”.
The colour also varies from dark green to light greenish yellow, and can be eaten either when young or fully mature. It can also be trained to grow on trellises or other supports.
The flavour is like a zucchini, with a slight lemony edge. The fuzzy gourd and the winter melon should not be confused with one another, even though they both share the same botanical name. Some experts feel that the fuzzy gourd is a young form of winter melon, while others consider it a separate cultivar.
Musky gourd, musky pumpkin, (golden) cushaw pumpkin (Cucurbita moschata – Family Cucurbitaceae)
Archaeological evidence shows that the musky gourd was grown as early as 3000 BCE in New Mexico and Peru, but no wild form is known today. The musky gourd can withstand high temperatures, and is the most widely cultivated pumpkin in the tropics of both hemispheres. The fruits do not develop tough shells and are quite varied in shape.
The flesh is dark yellow in colour because of its high carotene content. It is slightly gelatinous in consistency and gives off a pleasant scent, hence the name “musky”. It is popular as food for both humans and animals, and can be stored to months. Among the numerous varieties of this species is the butternut squash, highly prized for its buttery-soft flesh that is cooked in the same way as the giant pumpkins, which is, halved, steamed in its shell and the flesh scooped out after baking.
Smooth loofah/luffa, sponge gourd, dish-cloth/dish-rag gourd, vegetable sponge, towel gourd, African sponge (Luffa cylindrica, previously Luffa aegyptica – Family Cucurbitaceae)
The smooth loofah differs from the angled loofah in that the ridges which run its length are only a hint in the smooth varieties. The flesh of the young ten-inch long fruit is white, with a cottony texture inside. Both the smooth and the angled can be eaten peeled raw or cooked when the fruit is young; but, as it matures, the flavour becomes more bitter. Even when eaten young, many people still find the flavour disagreeable. The smooth loofah is the best-known of the ten or so different species of loofah. Scientists have developed varieties of fruits with sponge-like materials, as well as non-bitter varieties for use as a vegetable.
Philip Miller, the great gardener of the Chelsea Physick Garden, was the one who gave the smooth loofah its botanical name. Loofah comes from the Arabic “luff” and hence the botanical name of the genus and one species. Miller first saw the loofah growing in Egyptian gardens in the 17th century. Both varieties are native of the Old World tropics, possibly India; but there is no name for them in Sanskrit and no record of its use in China before the modern day.
Today, it is Japan that produces the most loofahs, averaging 24,000 per acre. They are used for filters, for cleaning forks (by thrusting the prongs in and out a number of times), for stuffing tablemats and saddles, and for the soles of slippers. No doubt there were also popular in the Turkish baths and were mentioned as such in a book from 1850.
Cultivation for extraction of the sponge-like vascular bundle from the mature fruits is commercially more important. Today, this serves almost exclusively as the raw material for natural, exfoliant washing gloves and back-rubs. However, before WWII, 60% of the loofah imported into the US were used in filters for steamship and diesel engines.
To prepare as a cleansing tool, the “fruit” must first have its green outer skin peeled away and the rest soaked and retted for several days in water so that the fleshy part and the seeds can be pulled away, leaving the skeleton of the structure. This is then bleached and sometimes flattened ready for use. It is trickier to remove the skin and flesh of the angled loofah; therefore, the smooth loofah is the type preferred by commercial industries.
Snake gourd, club gourd, long tomato, chichinda (Trichosanthes cucumerina var. anguina – Family Cucurbitaceae)
Snake gourds are extremely long fruits and only distantly related to the common cucumber. They are cultivated in Southeast Asia, China, Japan, West Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and tropical Australia. Snake gourds can reach enormous lengths of more than six feet, with a diameter of up to four inches. By this time, the gourd is quite inedible and has turned yellow to red. Inside, the seeds are packed in a red spongy pulp. Their name came as a result of their slightly twisted shape if left to grow naturally. Weights are often placed on them while they are growing to cause them to grow straighter. Another peculiar feature is the flowers. These delicate, white, very aromatic flowers are fringed with fine hairs (Tricosanthes means hairy flower). In Asia, Africa, and their native India, this slightly sweetish gourd is enjoyed as a cooked vegetable or as a substantial addition to soup.
Tindoori, tindola, tindori, ivy gourd, small gourd, scarlet gourd (Coccinia grandis – Family Cucurbitaceae)
Ivy gourd is actually the proper name to use for this vegetable, which are elongated oval fruits measuring only about two inches in length. Although some are exported, they are mainly important to countries which cultivate them: India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Central Africa. Their mildly juicy fruit is reminiscent of the cucumber in taste. Ripe ivy gourds are red, but only the unripe green fruit is eaten, despite the fact they are somewhat bitter. They are eaten fresh or pickled, and the leaves and shoots can also be used as a vegetable.
Tinda, round melon, squash melon, round gourd (Praecitrullus fistulosus – Family Cucurbitaceae)
The round gourds are small fruits indigenous to India, and are only grown there and in neighbouring Pakistan. They are equally esteemed as a vegetable, medicinal plant, and animal fodder. They are apple-size, round, light green fruit, which are eaten cooked, pickled, or candied. The seeds are roasted and eaten as a snack.
Calabash (Crescentia cujete – Family Bignoniaceae)
Calabash is not a true gourd, but a very hard-shelled pod that hangs from a small West Indian tree. The tree may reach forty feet, is “weirdly” ornamental, and a favourite perch for wild orchids.
The short-stemmed round, oval, or oblong fruit greatly varies in size; but the wild form seldom reaches over four inches. The cultivated types will grow to eighteen inches in length.
The exterior is always green and smooth; and, when dried, the shell becomes hard and very durable. The flesh is spongy and juicy, containing a great number of dark brown, flat seeds which are used to make a confection called “carabobo”.
The oil is linolenic acid but, otherwise, resembles that of peanut or olive oils. The Mexican calabash (C. alata) is grown mainly on the west coast, and the seeds used to make various refreshing drinks (refresco). The dried shells are often painted and made into maracas.
Updated November 2012