February Feature Article: Gourds in History
While there is no definite proof, plant geographers believe gourds have been cultivated by our species for a minimum of thirty thousand years - making it by far the oldest cultivated plant on earth. Who'd a thunk that the little gourd you are painting for a friend is the OLDEST CULTIVATED PLANT ON EARTH.
The origin of cultivated Lagenarias remains something of a mystery; they are unquestionably one of the earliest cultigens, and it is quite interesting that the nature of early agriculture focused not on food production, but utility. In other words, if you are going to grow wheat, rice, barley, etc, you FIRST have to have something to carry the grain in. A slab of bark? A big leaf? Hollowed out tree branch? None of them would work as well as the light weight, durable gourd. Even carrying water,or a burning coal for the next fire would be easier. Makes sense doesn't it?
Wild gourds in the genus Lagenaria are African. The wild gourd has a thin rind that quickly decays, releasing its seeds. In contrast, the domesticated gourd has a much thicker rind which is more resistant to decay. The domesticated bottle gourd is unable to survive without people, who release the seeds from their imprisonment within the gourd. Which means, to keep gourds around WE have to propagate them, not nature. Isn't that neat? With out us, gourds would become extinct. So keep those gardens going.
*A little side note to gardeners. When planting your gourd seeds, plant them sideways. Why? Well, think about how plants spread their seeds. When a seed falls to the ground, it doesn't land point or butt first. It lands sideways. So, doesn't it make sense to imitate what nature has already perfected?
Here is an unusual use of gourds! In the Popul Vuh - a pre-Columbian document of the Kiche people of Central America - a BOMB is mentioned: It's a gourd filled with live hornets. I can only imagine, in a feud/war, how nice it would be to have a stash of those around the house. And not much fun to be on the receiving end of the "first ever" hand grenade.
Gourds are even mentioned in the Bible.
"And the Lord God Prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. SO Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd. " Jonah 4:6
"And one went out into the field to gather herbs, and found a wild vine, and gathered thereof wild gourds his lap full, and came and shred them into the pot of pottage: for they knew them not. So they poured out for the men to eat. And it came to pass, as they were eating of the pottage, that they cried out, and said, O thou man of God, there is death in the pot. And they could not eat thereof." 2 Kings 4:39-40
It is believed that the banjo originally came from the Gambia/Senegal area of Africa, and is the only recognized instrument invented solely in the United States. Originally called the Banjar among other names by the colonists, it was integrated into society by the slaves and indentured blacks around the Chesapeake Bay in the 1600's. That's the second time gourds were introduced to America. The first of course were the ones brought via the land bridge between Russia and Alaska, or floated over from the Polynesian/Hawaiian Islands to the America's.
Hawaiians had over 41 uses for the gourd, and now evidence shows that the gourd originated in Africa, but came to the North and South American continent via Asia rather than floating over from Africa to South America as originally believed. They've found gourd rinds in graves dating back over 9000 years, and have found gourd seeds in Mastodon dung in Florida dating back to 9000 years. In fact the Incas used pieces of gourd covered with gold to fill in holes in the skulls of patients they operated on and had to remove parts of the bone. They even kept bee hives in gourds. Easier to harvest the honey.
Not to mention all the medical uses by the Chinese, who even made cricket cages from gourds to keep their fighting and pet crickets in. Snuff boxes in Africa, India,and China. Powder horns for the colonist's, even sock darner's. Egg gourds were used as sock darners in the 1600 & 1700's until wood, metal and plastic replaced them. As you can see, the simple gourd has in it's own small way made an impact worldwide!