What Is a Gourd?

Featured Article, Gardening, Home & Family, Outdoors, This Week in History
on November 8, 2012

Gourds belong to the plant family Cucurbitaceae and are related to pumpkins, squash and cucumbers. Gourds have been cultivated for centuries. Their history traced back to the Egyptian tombs of the 12th Dynasty (about 2200 to 2400 BC) where evidence shows they were used as utensils, reports the Department of Horticulture at Purdue University.

Three types of common gourds include the Cucurbita, Lagenaria and the Luffa, or sponge gourd. Each is considered an ornamental gourd and can be grown in many areas of the United States. However, they are not frost resistant.

Cucurbita. The most common type of gourds, Cucurbita, grows in unusual shapes and can be found in many colors such as orange, yellow, white and green. The Cucurbita pepo is the field pumpkin, grown throughout the United States. It belongs to the ovifera variety and may be shaped like an apple, pear, bells or egg, according to Purdue University. Varieties of Cucurbita produce flowers in yellow or orange, which bloom during daylight. The Cucurbita maxima are a larger variety and include turban squash.

Lagenaria. Lagenaria siceraria often are known as dipper or bottle gourds. It’s an annual like the Cucurbita variety. Its vines may grow to about 30 feet or more with heart-shaped leaves and white flowers that are evening bloomers. The bottle gourd’s size varies, ranging from as small as 3 inches to as large as 3 feet. Their outer skin may be smooth or bumpy. Lagenaria’s shape varies as well from dumbbell-shaped to crook-necked and globe shapes with long necks. Colors range from green to tan to multi-toned—some even sport stripes and other interesting patterns. When the Lagenaria gourd is mature, its shell hardens.

Luffa. Luffa gourds, or loofa gourds, also are known as dishcloth gourds or vegetable sponges, reports the University of Minnesota Extension Office. Similar in shape to its cousin, the cucumber, the Luffa gourd grows on a vine like both the Cucurbita and Lagenaria gourds. It has a long, cylindrical shape, similar to the cucumber. Luffa gourds need warm temperatures and a longer growing season to reach maturity. They flower with yellow blooms.

According to Jeanine M. Davis, an Extension Horticultural Specialist at North Carolina University, when mature, its “dry fruit consists of a hard shell surrounding a stiff, dense network of cellulose fibers.” It can take several weeks for the Luffa to mature enough for the outer skin to be peeled away, revealing the inner spongy-material that can then be used as a bath sponge after it has dried. The seeds also must be removed.