Gourds are the dried fruit of a large number of plants, most falling within the family of Cucurbitaceae. They are often used as vessels for water, storage containers or musical instruments, as well as for solely decorative functions. A wide range of cultures throughout the world have used gourds for many different purposes, and their popularity does not seem to be waning in the modern age.
Although true gourds are rarely used for consumption, some gourds are. The snake gourd (Trichosanthes cucumerina) is probably the most well-known food gourd, eaten mostly in Asia. Its taste is somewhat bitter, making it unappetizing to most Western palates.
The luffa is another well-known gourd, though many people do not realize it is a gourd. The fruit itself is long and tapering, somewhat like an oversized zucchini. When dried, however, a certain variety may be used as a bath aid. This is done by removing the skin and only leaving the inside, which is rigidified and has a rough, porous texture. Luffas have become very popular in the West as a means of exfoliating skin, and also as a simple replacement for more traditional sponges.
The bitter melon is another of the edible gourds, though as its name suggests, it is incredibly bitter. It is found throughout tropical Asia, India and the Caribbean. It may be used in stews and soups, or dried and served as light and bitter chips. The bitter melon gourd is used widely in medicine throughout its range, treating a number of symptoms, including diabetes and potentially HIV.
The bottle gourd, also known as calabash, is one of a number of gourds native to the Americas. The calabash makes an excellent container gourd, hence the name bottle gourd, and may be used as a vessel for storing water, a ladle and even a pipe.
Gourds may also be used to create a variety of musical instruments. The most famous of these instruments is the maraca, an extremely ancient American instrument. The word maraca is thought to come from a Brazilian language. The instrument is extremely simple, consisting only of a dried out gourd in which the seeds striking the hard shell make a percussive noise. Gourds may also be used as the body and resonating chamber for a number of traditional stringed instruments, and as the body for drums.
Because of their extremely ancient origins and their organic shapes, gourds are often thought to have directly influenced the shaping of early pottery. Gourds are widely believed to be among the first cultivated plants. Comparing the shapes of pre-historic water and food vessels to those of native gourds yields some often striking similarities.
Lastly, gourds may be used for simple decorative purposes. It is this use which has catapulted their cultivation in the West in recent years. Gourds make ideal vessels for painting, carvings and even etching with fire. Countless organizations exist devoted to promoting the use of gourds as artistic vehicles, and suppliers can be found throughout the Western world, as can books and classes on cultivating one's own gourds.