Drying and Preserving Gourds
Gourds are easily grown in the home garden, and just as easily preserved. Gourds come in many sizes, shapes and colors - Stokes Seeds, Inc. lists about 14 types of small gourds and five types of large gourds. A variety of these can be preserved successfully, and serve in this state in a number of decorative ways. An important factor in successful preservation is the harvest time, as preserving gourds depends in part on the maturity of the fruits when harvested.
The fruits of the small varieties normally mature sufficiently in the southern part of lower Michigan. Most of the small gourds are used during the fall and can be kept for a few weeks without special efforts, especially if they are allowed to dry in a well-ventilated location for a few weeks.
Large gourds are less successful when preserved, as they often do not mature sufficiently. A large gourd takes approximately 130 days to mature. Gardeners who wish to grow and preserve large gourds may want to use several techniques to help the fruits mature. The soil may be warmed by covering it with black plastic a couple of weeks before planting, or by using a black plastic mulch. Using row or plant covers or protectors early in the season may help to protect the plant. Allowing only one or two fruits per plant to develop will aid in the chance of maturity of these fruits, while protecting the vines from frost in the fall to extend the growing season.
Fruits of the larger types are ready to harvest when the skin is hard and the stem is dry and brown. The gourds should be harvested before chance of a a hard frost, with a few inches of stem left attached to the fruit. The gourds should be handled carefully, to avoid bruising or scratching the skin of the fruits.
The first stage in the drying process is the surface drying stage, a process which takes about a week. During this time, the outer skin hardens and the color sets. Surface moisture may be removed by spreading the gourds out in a single layer in a dry, well-ventilated room, such as a shed, porch, or garage. The gourds should not touch one another, and should be turned each day. If gourds are placed on newspapers, the papers should be changed daily. Any fruits developing soft spots or shriveling should be removed.
An additional three to four weeks is needed for the final drying stage. In this process, the gourds are spread out in single layers in a warm, dark, dry, airy location, such as an attic. The fruits should be checked every few days, and any rot removed. Gourds may become covered with a mold or crust at this time. This is normal, so those that experience this crusting should be kept. During this process, the fruits should be turned occasionally. Gourds that dry properly will be light in weight and the seeds will rattle.
Following the drying process, the gourds should be washed in warm water, and steel wool used to remove the mold and crust. After completely dried with a soft rag, the gourds can be sanded and polished. Properly dried gourds should retain their color for three to four months, and waxing the surface with a paste floor wax may help preserve the colors for a longer time period. Gourds can be stained or dyed, varnished, painted, or decorated with a wood-burning tool.
Luffa or Sponge gourds are often coveted for cosmetic use - primarily in the bath. Gathering of the Luffa or the Sponge does not occur until late in the season; as the gourds should should remain on the vines until they are ripe or until the vines are killed by frost. After harvest, they may be treated, allowing the grower to remove the outer covering and the pithy material that fills the spaces of the fibrous interior. The outer covering may be removed by exposure for a time to the weather, however this method seldom produces bright, attractive sponges. Better results occur when the the gourds are soaked in tanks or tubs of water until the outer covering and the pith soften. In large quantities, the gourds are placed in coarse-mesh bags or in crates and are submerged in a stream until completely softened. Some growers pack them in boxes covered with wet bags to maintain the moisture necessary for softening them. When the gourds have become thoroughly softened, the outer covering and pithy material can be removed by the abrasion which occurs when they are rubbed together or by a brush. The sponges should then be washed through several changes of clean water and then dried.
"Preparation of Sponge Gourds" USDA Farmer's bulletin No 1849, 1940
Lee Taylor, Hortopics: 12/85 Michigan State University Dept. of Horticulture.