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Growing bigger, better bottle gourds

March 27, 2012 |  9:58 am

Bottle gourd Bernice Leung
The bottle gourd has been grown and eaten from the Americas to Asia to Africa -- cultivated for more than 15,000 years, by some estimates. Thanks to the millenniums of cross-breeding, it comes in many shapes and can reach stunning proportions -- like a harbor buoy a couple of feet long.

Bottle gourd trellisThe plant, also called the calabash, is thought to have originated in South Africa. It spread throughout the tropics globally, the giant pods floating on the ocean currents for months, intact, the seeds protected inside.

Bangladesh native Sayed Zaman, a gardener at the Salad Bowl Community Garden in Granada Hills, eats the flowers, the leaves and the younger fruit, skinned and enjoyed like zucchini. Bottle gourd is quite tasty, with a nutty flavor and a pleasingly crisp texture, ideal for soup, raita or curry. Unlike squash, it doesn’t get mushy when cooked.

Bottle gourd grows quickly, Zaman said. It starts easily from seed and flowers in about 60 days.

“It’s a summertime fruit that takes lots of water and loves to climb,” he said, noting his latticed space devoted to the plant. A west-facing "wall" of his gourd "room" is threaded with the vines, and pods hang down from the ceiling, swinging like chandeliers. It’s hot outside, but under the vine roof, covered in the foot-wide hairy leaves of the plant, it’s shady and slightly humid.

Bottle-gourd-seedlingProviding some sort of support structure is essential. At Rio de Jardin community garden in Elysian Valley, Bernice Leung has constructed a frame made from recycled cane she got from a cleanup of the nearby L.A. River.

“They get big -- 3 feet -- and keep a long time,” she said of the gourds, adding that you can hollow out the fruit and use it like a bottle. The gourds also have been used to make ladles, bowls, musical instruments, pipes, floats in fishing nets and bird houses.

In Ayurvedic medicine the bottle gourd is used for gastrointestinal problems and for controlling weight. But in India, where the juice has been taken as a tonic for centuries, a government-funded medical research council issued a public advisory last year against drinking bottle gourd juice from fruit with bitter flesh. The bitterness indicates that the fruit is spoiled, the council said, and poses a threat for poisoning for which there is not antidote.

For gardeners here, a more common concern is watering, which can be tricky. The bottle gourd is a thirsty and fast grower, susceptible to mildew, particularly near the coast. Some gardeners water only every three days before the fruit sets.

You can find seeds in some nurseries, Asian food markets and websites such as Evergreen Seeds, Kitizawa and Burpee. Be sure to soak them overnight before planting.

-- Jeff Spurrier

The Global Garden, a look at our multicultural city through what it plants, usually appears Tuesdays. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page for gardening in the West.


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Bottle gourd Jim Lee

Jim Lee, the loquat king of Echo Park, still has fruit from last year's harvest -- large pods that he's letting dry. This year's seedlings are 4 inches high and fairly unremarkable from any other squash.


Sayed Zaman shows off one of his dried gourds at the Granada Hills Salad Bowl garden.

Photos, at top: Bernice Leung grows bottle gourd and squash on a trellis at Jardin del Rio community garden in Elysian Valley; a bottle gourd hangs from a trellis at the Salad Bowl Community Garden in Granada Hills.

Photo credit: Ann Summa