The Utilitarian Gourd

Gourds are one of our oldest domesticated plant species and one of our best vegetable allies. Through gourd rind dating, archaeologists are fairly confident that gourds were originally domesticated 10,000 years ago in Asia by prehistoric humans. These hard shelled plants may have even been the first species of plants to ever be domesticated! From Asia, the gourd made its way to Europe and America very early on in the historical record. Peruvian archaeological sites show evidence of gourds that date from 13,000 to 11,000 BC. Evidence of domesticated gourds has been found in Africa as well, and the plants even provide evidence that could prove the discovery of the New World by the Polynesians, showing just how far this versatile plant got in the ancient world.


Though they are in the Cucurbit family and are close relatives to pumpkins and squash, gourds have never really been valued for their ability to feed people. Instead, they served a variety of other important purposes which included being made into eating and drinking vessels, storage barrels, bottles, musical instruments, jewelry, toys, sponges, prosthetic limbs, and were even part of early brain surgeries to repair skull fractures. At one time, these hardy vegetables briefly served as currency in Haiti.




Types of Gourds

Not every gourd was able to perform every function. Instead, early humans developed many different species of gourds over the ages; each kind particularly useful for a specific task. Bottle gourds, with their naturally wide base, thin middle and wide top were perfect for carrying water and other liquids over long distances. Gooseneck gourds have a natural curve that can be turned into water dippers and wide, rounds bottoms that can be turned into bowls and cooking vessels. Luffas could be peeled when dry and their inner fibers became sponges and scrubbers. Barrel gourds were great for storage, spinning gourds were popular toys due to their tiny aerodynamic shape, and Calabash gourds were the traditional source of maracas. Many of the these gourds are still used for the same purposes today.




Creation Myths and Gourds

Because of their very early association with water by prehistoric humans living in dry regions, gourds appear in many creation myths around the world. The Chinese tell a story where the entire human population was wiped out by a flood except for a pair of brother and sister. The two were forced to marry, so that they could repopulate the Earth. Their first child was a gourd, and when they broke open its shell, each broken piece became a new human child.


Another story from Laos tells how in the beginning of time, a single massive gourd vine stretched from the earth to the heavens. On the vine, there grew a gourd that was so large it blocked the sun, covering the Earth in darkness. The gods decided to populate the earth, but the dimly lit world was so unpleasant that no one could live there but spirits. To bring light, the gods cut down the vine and threw the gourd to the earth. They hacked into its skin and the first humans emerged to spread across the land.




Follow the Drinking Gourd

The story for this post takes place a bit later than other stories on this blog, but it is no less important. Set in the American south before the Civil War, it tells of a man called Peg Leg Joe who helped escaped slaves flee to the relative safety of the North. While historians aren’t entirely sure if Joe was a real person or a folktale, he represents the brave actions taken by many Abolitionists of the time. This is a story of the courageous men and women who risked their lives so that others could be free.


The year was 1855 and the place was an tiny county just north of Mobile, Alabama in the southern United States. This was the home of Peg Leg Joe. Joe was once a sailor who traveled all over the world and brought valuable goods to exotics ports. Now, he was no longer a sailor, but he still carried an irreplaceable cargo to new homes. Joe was a conductor on the underground railroad, and his “cargo” were slaves seeking freedom in the North.


No one was entirely sure if Joe had ever been a slave himself; he said little of his past. The work of a conductor on the underground railroad was grueling and endless, but rewarding. They were part of a vast network, each piece doing their best to spread freedom and avoid capture and death themselves. They worked in isolation. Each conductor knew a little bit about where their station connected to others, but one knew how they all fit together. That was part of what kept them safe.


Regardless of who he’d been, Joe was one of the best conductors the railroad had ever seen. He’d sent more people on to freedom than anyone else, and had never been caught. Night after night, he would pose as a slave and creep onto neighboring plantations. One after another, he would help the people he found there slip away and get them to a station where they could rest, eat, and hide before moving on. He would also help other runaways coming from further south find their way to their next destination. Joe’s station was one of the most important, because he was close to the Kentucky border which marked a change in the young nations sympathies toward slavery.


Before they came to him, the conductors further south did their best to make sure every man, woman, and child knew where to go and how to get to Joe. They couldn’t write instructions down for them. Paper might be found, which would endanger the whole railroad system, and most of the escapees hadn’t been taught to read anyway. Instead, in a practice that stretched down from the oral traditions of their African ancestors, the escaped slaves learned to sing directions:


“When the Sun comes back

And the first quail calls

Follow the Drinking Gourd,

For the old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom

If you follow the Drinking Gourd

The riverbank makes a very good road.

The dead trees will show you the way.

Left foot, peg foot, traveling on,

Follow the Drinking Gourd.

The river ends between two hills

Follow the Drinking Gourd.

There’s another river on the other side

Follow the Drinking Gourd.

When the great big river meets the little river

Follow the Drinking Gourd.

For the old man is a-waiting for to carry to freedom

If you follow the Drinking Gourd.”


Joe’s carefully coded his song, but the verses made sure its singers knew to be on the lookout for the signs he left on dead trees to point them on; an outline of a left foot with a circle to symbolize his peg just to its right of the foot print. The rest of the song described how the escapees would follow the Tombigbee River until it became the Ohio River. They would pass by Woodall Mountain in Tennessee and follow the river until they reached Kentucky. There, he would be waiting for them. As long as they kept following the Big Dipper, which the song cleverly named the Drinking Gourd, they would arrive safely to their new homes.



In the Victorian Language of Flowers gourds means “extent” or “bulk” implying a large amount.


In Chinese culture, luck, fecundity, and longevity are also associated with gourds.


If you’d like to try growing gourds yourself, one of my favorite seed companies, Botanical Interests, has several varieties including Spinning Gourds, Birdhouse Gourds, and Luffas.


Bottle Gourd (Lagenaria siceraria) – Domestication History

Gourd History

The Gourd – A Little History and Some Growing Instructions

Gourds in American History

American Gourd Society FAQ

History of Gourds

Gourd Varieties

Gourd Growers of the South Seas

Gourd Charms

Cowrie Shells to Paper

Handbook of Chinese Mythology

Where the Lao People Came From

Follow the Drinking Gourd

The Story of Peg Leg Joe

What the Lyrics Mean


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *