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What is a Calabash?

Niki Acker
Updated May 16, 2024
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A calabash (Lagenaria siceraria), also called opo squash or bottle gourd, is a type of vine grown for its fruit. The fruit may be eaten when young, or dried when mature for use as a bottle, utensil, or musical instrument. Calabash is among the earliest plants to be cultivated. The thick, waterproof wall of the mature bottle gourd, which allows it to be used as a receptacle, is the product of cultivation. Wild calabashes recently found in Zimbabwe usually have much thinner walls.

This plant grows easily in the wild and is well distributed throughout tropical and subtropical areas of the world. It is believed to have originated either in Asia or Africa. Many other Lagenaria species are native to Africa. Calabash was being cultivated in the Americas as long ago as 8,000 years. It is unknown whether the gourds drifted across the water of the Atlantic Ocean or Bering Strait or whether they were carried over by people.

Calabash is used in a great many native cuisines, including those of East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, the Mediterranean, and Central America. The fruit may be cooked as a squash or served in stews, soups, or stir-frys. In Japan, it may be used in sushi, or marinated and dried in strips.

The toasted, ground seeds of the calabash are used to make the traditional Central American drink horchata. In Tanzania, the seeds are cooked in sugar, brightly colored, and sold as sweets. In addition to the fruit, the leaves, shoots, and tendrils of the plant are also edible.

The calabash is also used as a container or utensil in cultures throughout the world. Some of the most common uses are as a bottle to store or carry liquid, and as a bowl for food. Traditional musical instruments are made out of the calabash, including rattles, drums, and the African stringed instruments kora, ngoni, and goje. The bottle gourd can also be used to make a smoking pipe.

In parts of India, the hollowed out calabash is used as a floating device to help teach swimming. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the bottle gourd is held to have healing properties and is often used as a container for medicines. The vessel is also used in China to house pet crickets, which are kept for their fighting ability and the noise they make. The gourd amplifies and enhances the crickets' song.

HomeQuestionsAnswered is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a HomeQuestionsAnswered editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "

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Discussion Comments
By ladyjane — On Oct 17, 2011

@MsClean - Hi, I just wanted to share a piece of advice with you about drying your calabash gourds. Just so you're aware of it ahead of time, gourds tend to put off a very nasty odor while they're going through the drying process.

You might want to carefully consider an appropriate place for them to dry besides your classroom. That would be a terrible distraction to withstand for two months. Otherwise, it should be a fun and exciting learning project for your class.

By Markus — On Oct 16, 2011

@MsClean - That sounds like an interesting school project. I'm sure your students will have some fond memories from it and maybe learn a thing or two about the African culture.

You should harvest your calabash gourds when the stems have withered and turned brown. You might want to leave a few inches of the stem on each gourd for decoration and for handling.

To dry them you'll first need to thoroughly wash them and then rinse with a disinfectant of one part bleach and ten parts water. Now put the gourds in a dry area away from direct sunlight.

Make sure they don't touch each other and be prepared to turn them about every two weeks. It could take anywhere from one to three months to fully harden but you'll know when they're dry because the seeds will rattle from the inside.

Once the gourds are dry, just give them a quick rinse and an hour to dry and you're all set to start decorating.

By MsClean — On Oct 16, 2011

My fifth grade students will be spending our second semester studying the African Continent so I planned ahead and planted several rows of calabash gourds this past spring. I now have dozens of big brown gourds dripping from the vines, which I'm very excited about.

I'd like for my students to help with the curing process but I need a bit more information on when they're ready to harvest and how we go about drying them.

If all goes well, once the gourds are properly dried, the students will be allowed to decorate them and make their own instruments, masks, utensils, etc.

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a HomeQuestionsAnswered editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide...
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