By Nancy Reid, Retail Associate.
Last summer, we grew the Apache Dipper Gourd for seed. Through our volunteer seed processing days we worked as a group on cleaning and harvesting the seeds. At the same time, we were able to open the hard outer shell by carefully using hand saws so that the gourds could be used for different purposes once the seeds were removed.
Gourds are cleaned depending on what the use is to be – artistic crafts, food/water, birdhouse, rattle, etc. If it's intended for food/drinking the cleaning of the gourd must be precise to ensure that any mold or fungus is removed and disinfected. Gourds come in a diversity of sizes and shapes. So the possibilities of what to do with them are endless!
Gardeners can judge each gourd's ripeness by weight and color. The young gourds are dark green and are fairly heavy - they are 90% water. As the fruit matures, they turn a lighter green or beige, and will weigh less. The true sign of maturity is a dry, brown stem. It is always best to allow gourds to dry on the plant as long as possible to get a smooth, hard outer shell. Leaving them outside all winter after a frost in most areas is just fine. So long as they have had time to grow to full size and begin to dry before frost hits. That is why is is best to start gourds early in the spring or very early monsoon season in the low desert. It is best to grow on a trellis, up a mesquite tree or some way to allow them to hang and dry evenly. This will also give a nice round shape. While they are heavy if the plant is healthy they can support the weight of the gourd without support. If you grow on the ground, turn them periodically to avoid flat spots and ensure the side that comes into contact with the ground does not rot. If the gourds are picked when too green they will often shrivel and shrink when drying. They drying process will take months, longer the larger the gourd. If you must pick early it is best to hand them in a well ventilated space so they dry evenly. Avoid bruising or damage as this causes rotting.
I used a dish scrubber to clean the outside of the gourds with bleach water in order to dissolve as much fungus as possible. Fully submerging is just fine and won’t damage the seeds inside if the gourd has no holes. I then dried them with a towel and sawed into them with my hand held saw. I selected the most straight handled gourds to make into dippers and rattles. For the dippers, I carefully sawed into the side, cleaned out the styrofoam-like lining with the scraper. Once all the seeds are removed the dippers can be submerged into boiling water to further soften the interiors allowing the remaining debris to be scraped away.
Years back I grew a lot of gourds and was active in the Old Pueblo Gourd Patch, a community group of gourd lovers. My favorite tools to work with gourds were a scraper and a hand saw with a 5" blade. No longer having these tools, I set out online in search of the same tools. I did eventually find the scraper alright but the scraper was sold as a blade that fits into a hobby knife.
When the desired shape was made we used my hand scraper to remove the inner shell which resembles styrofoam. It flew all over the courtyard like snow! Because the inside breaks down into fine particles it can be irritating if inhaled. Therefore it is recommended to do this step outside or even wear a face mask if you are sensitive. Crafters who process alot of gourds have been known to contract "gourd flu" that keep them down for several days. Take precautions!
The gourds intended for rattles I brought home to use my power drill and carefully made a hole in the bottom, where the flower of the gourd once was and creates a "belly button" scar on the shell. This was more difficult penetrating than the side walls themselves. I then took my little hand saw and carved a quarter-size opening into which I used a 10" flathead screwdriver to clean the lining and empty the seeds. Any sort of long stick or tool would work. Just scrape inside and shake periodically to allow the seeds and debris to fall through the hole. Seeds can be used to make the “rattle” sound but traditionally small stones are often used. For the Tohono O’odham stones used inside the rattles are carried down to generations and have provided the music for numerous rattles.
Necessary items and procedure to clean the exterior of gourds: This will remove mold and fungus. If one wished to dye or paint the gourd it is essential to also remove the waxy lining so paint and dye will absorb.
- Rubber dish gloves
- Rags, towels, scrubbing pad (copper is sturdy and will not rust)
- Scraper (back edge of knife will do)
- Tub or bucket (size depends on the size of gourds)
- Cleaning solution of 10 parts water and 1 bleach
Items and procedure to clean the interior of gourds:
- Thicker rubber gloves or lightweight gardening gloves
- Dust mask: dust and inner foam particles are an irritant and can create respiratory problems - take precaution
- Screwdriver, scapper, or other tool to loosen the seeds from the sides of the gourd
- Electric drill with wire brush bit for hard to reach areas
- Eye protection
If there are many gourds to be cleaned and one doesn't want to do one by one, make a large quantity of solution in a large aluminum trash can, submerge the gourds using a large weight of sorts to hold them underwater for art spell. They become easier to scrape when the outer cuticle softens.
For the large amount of Apache Dipper Gourds we cleaned we compiled all of the seeds into a large bucket. Using gloves we rubbed the seeds and debris between our hands to separate the seeds from the styrofoam like material. It was then very easy to winnow the seeds to separate the debris using a large box fan. We poured the seeds in front of the fan into a bucket. The next step for the seeds it to conduct germination tests before they can be packaged and made available via our website and Retail Shop.