Alongside the glorious rich colours of autumn leaves, I think one of the most iconic images of autumn is of squashes – those wonderful shaped and coloured gourds or, to give them their proper name, Cucurbitaceae.
A gourd was probably one of the earliest domesticated types of plant as examples have discovered in archaeological sites dating from as early as 13,000 BC. Gourds are immensely versatile and can be found used in all sorts of ways throughout history, including as tools, musical instruments, objects of art, of course, food.
Squashes, pumpkins and gourds belong to the same family as cucumbers, melons, marrows and courgettes. There is an amazing variety of sizes, shapes and colours, and although most are edible, some are used for decoration only. All squashes and pumpkins have a tough outer rind, an inner cavity filled with hard seeds and sweet, rich, well-coloured flesh with a dense, nutty and earthy flavour.
As a child, I remember being served plain boiled marrow (ugh!) and carving pumpkins for Halloween but that was about the limit of my exposure to these vegetables. Now, we veggie gardeners grow courgettes by the ton and regularly shop for butternut squash and spaghetti squash, as well as turban squash, onion squash, acorn squash and even kabocha – this Japanese variety of squash.
Apart from being good to eat, they are also beautiful to look at, and their shapes and colours are incredibly diverse. I love seeing them arranged in a bowl almost as a work of art, and they will keep for ages.
Today, gourds are commonly used for a wide variety of crafts, including jewellery, furniture, dishes, utensils and a wide variety of decorations using carving, burning and other techniques. The Chinese developed a technique of tying a two-part mould around young gourds, or a part of them, so that the gourd grew into the mould and took its shape. Shaped gourds had various decorative uses, especially as boxes, bottles and other containers. And, don’t forget, that good old bath time companion the luffa (or loofah) is also a gourd!
Mini gourds are wonderful when included in floral decorations, such as wreaths, or table centres and you can buy a huge range online. Or you could grow them yourself, but drying, or curing, them takes time… let me know if you already grow them and I’d be interested to know how you use them!
Curing Ornamental Gourds
Curing or drying ornamental gourds requires time. There is no shortcut, like microwaving.
- Start by cleaning the surface of the gourds with soapy water and allow them to air dry.
- Place in a well-ventilated area away from direct sunlight, for about 1 week. The skin will begin to harden and change colour. After a week, the outside of the gourd should be well dried.
- Move the gourds to a well-ventilated, dark area where they can remain for at least 6 months. Spread them in a single layer and be sure none of the gourds are touching each other. Allow for airflow under the gourds by placing them on a screen or vented surface. It may be easier to hang larger gourds for drying.
- Check your gourds every few days and discard any that begin to decay, shrivel or get soft. If mould appears, see if you can wipe it off with a dry cloth or one dipped in bleach. If the gourd is still hard, it should be fine. Drying gourds is not a pretty process!
- Turn the gourd every couple of weeks, so it will dry evenly and to prevent rotting.
- When the gourds become light and hard to the touch, and you can hear the seeds rattling inside when you shake them, they are ready for use. At this time you can carve, paint, wax, shellac or decorate your ornamental gourds any way you wish. They should last indefinitely.
Gourd luck (sorry!)!