It's fall festival time again. Time for spiced apples, beautiful fall colors, arts and crafts, and locally grown produce. I've never been to a fall festival when those items didn't include gourds either for sale individually or crafted into exquisite creations.
Gourds have been cultivated for thousands of years by many cultures worldwide. Found in Egyptian tombs were 4,000-year-old gourds. Pioneers and Native Americans used gourds for everything from musical instruments to cooking utensils, dishes, toys, and as ornaments.
Gourds are related to melons, squash, pumpkins, and cucumbers, all members of the Cucurbitaceae or Cucumber family. There are thousands of different gourd types. I will discuss three here: the cucurbita or ornamental gourds; the lagenaria or utilitarian gourds; and the luffa or vegetable sponge.
The cucurbita include the colorful, variously shaped ornamental gourds often used in fall arrangements. Plants of this group produce large orange or yellow blossoms that bloom in the daytime. They come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Colors can be yellow, orange, green, white, or a combination of all. They can be striped, bicolored, or mottled. Shapes vary from fruits or eggs, to bottles, and beyond.
Ornamental gourds are often sold as small fancy gourd mix under the name Cucurbita pepo. There is such variation that it is hard to pinpoint a specific type. Common names include apple, bicolor, crown of thorns, nest egg, orange, pear, and small spoon. Also sold as ornamental gourds are the larger Aladdin and Turk's Turban sold under the name Cucurbita maxima.
The lagenaria (Cucurbita lagenaria) group includes the utilitarian gourds such as the Martin or birdhouse, bottle, and dipper gourds. these plants produce white blossoms that bloom at night. Lagenaria gourds are green on the vine, turning brown or tan, with thick, hard shells when dry.
Popular in recent years are the penguin and swan types. Others are large gourds such as calabash, dipper, large bottle, bushel, and cucuzzi. Once dried and cured, these gourds are used for a number of purposes for quite a long time.
Luffas (Luffa aegyptiaca) have an outer shell that is easily removed to expose a tough, fibrous interior that can be used as a sponge. Luffas produce prolific vines with yellow blossoms and require the longest growing season of all the gourds. They need at least 90 days of harvest for sponges and so should be started indoors as seeds in our climate.
For those who save seeds, the gourd types get even more interesting. Plants in this family will often cross-pollinate. Cross-pollination does not affect the current year's fruit, but will give interesting results the following year.
I hope you find time to enjoy one or more fall festivals this year. Those of us living in west central Illinois make our annual trek to the Spoon River Drive during the first two weekend of October. You can find other festivals listed on our University of Illinois Extension The Miracle of Fall website at http://extension.illinois.edu/fallcolor/default.cfm. Enjoy!