Gourds for eating, not just crafting into birdhouses
The squash family (Cucurbitaceae) is host to a huge diversity of plants, including pumpkins, cucumbers, melons, squash, zucchini and gourds. While some of these plants are popular edibles here in North America, gourds are primarily grown as ornamentals. But, while most of us grow gourds for their unique looks, many other cultures use them as delicious ingredients in a diverse array of dishes.
Edible gourds are those within the species Lagenaria siceraria. There are dozens of different varieties of this species, many of which make wonderful additions to the garden and kitchen.
For example, the elongated gourds we call “bottle gourds” and the lopsided dumbbell-shaped gourds known as “calabash gourds” often used as autumn decorations are edible when they’re harvested young.
At maturity, the skin of these gourds grows too tough to eat, and instead we use them as decoration or to create crafts, such as bowls, birdhouses, and water dippers. But, when picked young, their flesh is incredibly tasty, and if you’ve never tried them, they’re both easy to grow and delicious.
The vines can grow up to 20- feet long, so most edible gourds take up a lot of space in the garden. Grow them up a trellis whenever possible.
Unlike most other members of the cucurbit family, gourds in this particular species produce white flowers that open at night, rather than the yellow day-blooming flowers typical of other squashes. The flowers of edible gourds open at dusk and close by mid-day, and are primarily pollinated by nocturnal moths.
These plants love hot and humid weather, a sunny location, and well-drained, compost-rich soil with a pH between 6.5 and 7.0. Seeds can be sown directly into the garden when soil temperatures are close to 70 degrees F and the danger of frost has passed, usually in late May here in Pennsylvania.
As the vines mature, harvest the young fruits when they’re a just a few inches long and the skin is still soft and thin. To increase fruit production, the vines can be “tipped” by cutting off the terminal growing point when they reach about 10 feet in length. This practice forces the production of more fruit-bearing side shoots.
Here are a handful of delicious edible gourd varieties to try in this year’s garden.
“Tambuli” is a cylindrical-shaped gourd that is ready to harvest in about 60 days. The skin is bright green and the fruit is flattened on both ends. Immature gourds can be used in stews and stir-fries.
“Thai Bottle” gourds are most often used to make birdhouses when the mature fruits are dried. But, young gourds are delicious steamed or sliced and stir-fried. Grilling is another favorite preparation technique, as is grating the fruit and making it into fritters. Harvest the bottle-shaped gourds when they’re 5-inches long for the best flavor and texture.
“Italian Edible” or “Serpente di Sicilia” is a long, slender, light-green gourd that makes beautiful round slices perfect for grilling, stacking in vegetable lasagna, or breading for use in gourd parmesan. Though mature fruits reach 2 to 3 feet in length and 3 inches in girth, gourds intended for use in the kitchen should be harvested when they reach about 6 inches.
Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com. Send your gardening or landscaping questions to [email protected] or The Good Earth, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601.