By Melissa Segrest
Green Right Now
If you’ve cruised the produce section at the grocery lately, you probably stopped to eye the small, colorful, oddball gourds near the pumpkins and winter squash.
You might have seen the Shenot crown of thorns, looking like a squash-like starfish (below right); the winged gourd, the mini red Turban (reminding one of a very small pumpkin with a bigger pumpkin hat), and the golf ball-sized prickles, which might make you think twice before touching them.
Autumn’s wee ornamental gourds have been staples of the harvest for many years, but time and hybridizing has produced smaller, wackier (or more beautiful, depending on your perspective) ones.
We’re talking about the colorful, warty gourds in the Curcubit family (which includes squash, pumpkins and cucumbers), not their bigger, more utilitarian cousins, hardshell gourds.
Those larger hardshells have been used for thousands of years as practical tools – spoons, dippers, bowls – as well as birdhouses, masks, pipes and even musical instruments. Throughout the centuries, artists have turned Lagenaria gourds into fascinating works of art. (Check out a sampling of some.)
“Think of them as cucumbers with an attitude,” Judi Fleming said. She is the point person for the American Gourd Society when it comes to talking about tiny gourds.
“I have noticed the trend of the last 10 years: The traditional bi-color pears, egg gourds, spoon gourds and crown of thorns have given way to the more popular angel wings and warty gourds,” she said.
If you buy some shiny (that’s because of a coat of white varnish or shellac) mini gourds at the grocery store, don’t think about eating them. Unlike other popular edible winter squash, such as butternut and acorn, you have missed the window of opportunity for eating small gourds.
“All gourds are edible in their young stages,” Fleming said. “In fact, most European and Asian cultures think we Americans are strange in that we let our gourds get old and hard. The ornamentals can have a slightly bitter taste.”
(OK, you can bake the tiny orange or white pumpkins if you want.)
The big question: Are they organic?
Maybe, maybe not.
Organic gourds are more likely to come from your local farmer’s market rather than the big grocery store.
Whole Foods’ produce expert James Parker spoke to a company representative, saying that they buy locally grown squash and gourds when possible, “to get them to market quicker. But they can come from anywhere.”
Right now, Whole Foods’ gourds are mostly from Indiana, North Carolina and California. “There are dozens (if not hundreds) of gourd varieties produced throughout the U.S. Some of the more common have simple names that match up with there general shape and color: apple, orange, pear, spoon, warty and egg.
“Unfortunately, the organic availability tends to be spotty, and very much local,” he told the representative.
“Yes, they can be grown organically. Any agricultural product can be produced organically if it is in compliance with the National Organic Standards,” said Miles McEvoy, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. Large producers of small gourds would “have to get certification from an accredited certification agency if they sold more than $5,000 of organic products.”
Growing large numbers of these gourds can be tricky, which could be one reason lots of commercial producers don’t go organic. The gourds can fall victim to a variety of bugs and disease.
Their mortal enemies come under many names: striped or spotted cucumber beetles, squash bugs, aphids and the dreaded squash vine borer. Then there are the diseases: bacterial wilt, mosaic virus, mildew and others. Fruit rot is also a problem.
But you can grow them organically.
The experts at Organic Gardening magazine say all gourds can be grown organically.
“Gourds, squash and pumpkins grow very well organically. There are many certified organic seed providers, and although insect pests sometimes pose a problem, it is easy to take care of them organically.”
The gourds fare best in warm climates, but they can grow in cooler climates as well. They must be planted immediately after the final frost. The magazine’s editors advised using row covers over the plants in the first month or so, until they’re sturdy, then remove the row covers and use soapy water or a hard water spray to zap the pests.
“Gourds, squash and pumpkins are some of the plants most susceptible to absorbing and retaining pesticides, so it is especially important that they are grown organically,” said a representative from the magazine.
“Plants that are shipped across the country can leave a huge carbon footprint, even if they are grown organically, so ask your grocer if their gourds are organic,” they add. If not, find a local organic farmer, they suggest.
A few tips for growing gourds:
First, they take a while to grow, and they can’t survive the first frost of fall, so very cold climates won’t suit them. They are slow growers, and they’re big and sprawling, so you need to give them plenty of room. They prefer bees for pollination.
Interestingly, a Whole Foods representative said that this year, the small ornamentals haven’t been selling as well as in previous years. Plus, the grocery chain has seen an uptick in sales of the larger, hardshell gourds, such as the gooseneck and the snake.
Psyched up to get some gourds? Hurry, because after Thanksgiving they’ll vanish.
Copyright © 2009 Green Right Now | Distributed by Noofangle Media