What's in a Name?

Once other people find out you're into gourds, the most common question you're likely to hear is, "what's a gourd?" The answer really depends on who you ask.

Let's take a look at where gourds fit in the plant world. There's more than one way to classify such things; but the one I learned long ago is shown in the table: (I still remember this organization because of the memory aid, King Philip cut out Frank's gullet swiftly. )

How Gourds Fit In to the Rest of the Universe

PhylumSeed plants
ClassFlowering Plants
GenusLagenaria (hardshell)CucurbitaLuffaTricosanthes
Specieseg, siceria (bottle gourd)eg, pepo, (ornamental gourd, squash)eg, cylindricaeg, anguines (snake gourd)
Varietyeg dippereg, spoon, egg

Cucurbitales really has only one major family, cucurbitacea, the "real" gourd family, which includes all the genera we think of as gourds, as well as cucumbers, watermelons, pumpkins, squash, and around a hundred other genera of less economic and cultural significance.

Most of us "gourdheads" focus on just three of the approximately 100 genera: the lagenaria , or hard-shell gourd; the cucurbita, ornamental gourd; and the luffa , or vegetable sponge. In general, it seems the key to the "gourd" label is whether the fruit in question will dry properly or has unusual ornamental value. Interestingly, the varieties of cucurbita pepo with the most economic value in the United States are the summer squashes, which are wonderful to eat, but won't dry. The squashes are defined out of the gourd category, even though they are of the same species and will cross-pollinate fruitfully with ornamental gourds. To some extent, American acceptance of varieties being called "gourds" seems to be based on their not being good to eat. Current American gourd culture is based on growing and crafting of dried gourds and not particularly on cooking and eating. Note that in John Organ's book, Gourds, (published in 1963 in England, and unfortunately out of print) squashes are treated at length, as they are in L.H. Bailey's The Garden of Gourds (American Gourd Society, 1958). Gourds are commonly found in the vegetable sections of Asian food stores here in America. In Chinese, edible gourds are known as gua gwo, while lagenaria are called hu lu. Both are translated as "gourd" but they seem to represent a distinction not unlike our squash-gourd distinction. (I welcome the input of any native speakers on this.)

Most of us would agree that cucumbers (genus cucumis) are not gourds, but we would be willing to accept the teasel gourd (also genus cucumis). Slice open a teasel gourd and it looks just like a cucumber, but if you give it a lick....imagine the bitter aftertaste of an over-mature cucumber and multiply it times a million. That bitter flavor in gourds is a substance called cucurbitacin, and is found throughout the gourd family.

It's used as a purgative.

A few gourds dry well, and are edible. The Turk's turban, cucurbita maxima, squeaks through as a gourd, yet it tastes good, sometimes dries, and is the same species as what we usually call winter squash. The Italian edible and snake gourd are not genus lagenaria, but rather tricosanthes.

So a gourd seems to be any member of the gourd family that isn't good to eat, and dries well or is useful somehow, or is unusually interesting for some reason, with a few exceptions. It's not something you'll want to fight over.

But what the heck is a calabash? Figuring out the exact process by which these words came to share and change their meanings is a job for a graduate student somewhere, but here are the elements of the puzzle. In Spanish, the word for gourd is calabaza. According to Webster's, that's from Arabic for dry gourd, qarÔah yäbisah. In Turkey, pipes are made with meerschaum bowls supported in a gourd that has been carefully grown in a form; these are the pipes familiar from Sherlock Holmes. They were called calabash pipes because they were made with a gourd. Elementary. But now if you go to a tobacconist, you will find pipes called calabashes because of their shape, but made entirely from briar. (Although gourd-calabash pipes are still widely available.) Today, we call the variety of gourd used to make the pipes calabash gourds, although most of us have never seen a calabash pipe. So we name a gourd after a utensil which was named for a gourd. Meanwhile, there's a tree native to Central and South America that produces large round fruits that dry hard and are used for bowls, implements and decorative objects...like gourds. Of course, the fruits were named for us by Spanish colonists who called them calabazas. The trees themselves were called guiro (Crescentia cujete). The Latin American percussion instrument of the same name is made from a long gourd with parallel grooves in its surface; the sound is produced by scraping a stick across the grooves. So the guiro is an instrument made from a gourd that is named for a tree that produces fruits that were named for gourds. I would like to add that the tree gourd is not something to look down upon. There is much beautiful decorative work made from them.

I hope this clears things up.

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