|Green calabash on the vine|
The calabash, Lagenaria siceraria (synonym Lagenaria vulgaris Ser.), also known as opo squash, bottle gourd or long melon, is a vine grown for its fruit, which can either be harvested young and used as a vegetable, or harvested mature, dried, and used as a bottle, utensil, or pipe. The fresh fruit has a light green smooth skin and a white flesh. Rounder varieties are called calabash gourds. They come in a variety of shapes: they can be huge and rounded, small and bottle shaped, or slim and serpentine, more than a metre long.
The calabash was one of the first cultivated plants in the world, grown not primarily for food, but for use as a water container. The bottle gourd may have been carried from Africa to Asia, Europe and the Americas in the course of human migration, or by seeds floating across the oceans inside the gourd. It has been proven to be in the New World prior to the arrival of Columbus. It shares its common name with that of the calabash tree (Crescentia cujete).
Origin and dispersal
It is a commonly cultivated plant in tropical and subtropical areas of the world, now believed by some to have spread or originated from wild populations in southern Africa. Stands of Lagenaria siceraria that may be source plants, and not merely domesticated stands run wild, were reported recently in Zimbabwe. This apparent domestication source plant produces thinner-walled fruit that, when dried, would not endure the rigors of use on long journeys as a water container. Today's calabash may owe its tough, waterproof wall to selection pressures over its long history of domestication.
Calabash had been cultivated in Asia, Europe and the Americas for thousands of years before Columbus' discovery of America. Historically, in Europe, Walahfrid Strabo (808–849), abbot and poet from Reichenau, advisor to the Carolingian kings, discussed it in his Latin Hortulus as one of the 23 plants of an ideal garden.
Recent research indicates some can have an African origin and at least two unrelated domestications: one 8–9 thousand years ago, based on the analysis of archeological samples found in Asia, a second, four thousand years ago, traced from archeological discoveries in Egypt.
The mystery of the calabash – namely that this African or Eurasian species was being grown in America over 8,000 years ago – came about from the difficulty in understanding how it came to be on the American continent.
Calabash was originally thought to have drifted across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to North and South America. But genetic research on archeological samples published by the National Academy of Sciences in December 2005 suggested that calabash may have been domesticated earlier than food crops and livestock and, like dogs, was brought into the New World at the end of the ice age by the Paleo-Indians. This study showed that calabash found in American archaeological finds appeared closer to Asian calabash variants than to African ones.
In February 2014, the original hypothesis was revived based on a more thorough genetic study. Researchers examined the entire genome, including the plasmid genome and concluded that American specimens were most closely related to wild African variants and could have drifted over the ocean several or many times as long as 10,000 years ago.
The English word calabash comes from Spanish calabaza with the same meaning. The origin of the Spanish word is obscure. It is possibly from Arabic qar'a yabisa "dry gourd", from Persian kharabuz, used of various large melons; or the Spanish may have come from a pre-Roman Iberian calapaccia.
Like other members of the Cucurbitaceae family, calabashes contain cucurbitacins that are known to be cytotoxic at a high concentration. The tetracyclic triterpenoid cucurbitacins present in fruits and vegetables of the cucumber family, are responsible for the bitter taste, and could cause ulcers in the stomach. In extreme cases, people have died from drinking calabash juice. The toxic cases are usually due to the gourd being used to make juice, which the drinkers attested to being unusually bitter. And in the three lethal cases, the victims were all diabetics in their 50s and 60s.
However, the plant is not normally toxic when eaten and is safe to consume. The excessively bitter (and toxic) gourds are due to improper storage (temperature swings or high temperature) and over-riping.
To avoid poisoning, it is advised to:
- Taste a small piece of the gourd to make sure it is not unusually bitter, before making juice
- Discard all excessively bitter calabash gourd or juice
- Not mix calabash juice with other juices, such as that of bitter gourd, so as not to mask calabash's taste if it has gone bad
In India, it is known as lauki (लौकी / લૌકી), dudhi (दूदी / દૂદી) or ghiya (घीया / ઘીયા) in Hindi/Urdu/Gujarati/Marathi; Laau (ଲାଉ)in Oriya; aal (आल) in Marwari; churakka (ചുരക്ക) in Malayalam; jatilao in Assamese; lau (লাউ) in Bengali; sorakaaya (సొర కాయ) or anapakaya in Telugu; dudhi-Bhopala (दुधी भोपळा) in Marathi; sorekayi (ಸೋರೆಕಾಯಿ) in Kannada; sajmain in Maithili and Labu in Sinhalese and suraikkaai (சுரைக்காய் colloquilly sorakkay) in Tamil. A popular north indian dish is lauki channa, (channa dal and diced gourd in a semidry gravy). In the state of Maharashtra in India, a preparation similar to Lauki channa is popular. However, the skin is removed prior to making the dish. The skin can be used in making a Chutney preparation.
The calabash, as a vegetable, is frequently used in southern Chinese cuisine as either a stir-fry or in a soup. The Chinese name for calabash is hulu (simplified Chinese: 葫芦; traditional Chinese: 葫蘆; pinyin: húlu) or huzi (Chinese: 葫子; pinyin: húzi) in Mandarin. Two common kinds of calabash sold in Chinese stores are the "Opo" kind, which is elongated but still plump, and "Mao Gua" which is very similar to Opo, but it has hairs, as its Chinese name references, which translates to "Hairy Squash". The hairs, although small, can get embedded in the skin, but it is usually safe for adults to handle.
In Japan, the species is known as hyōtan (瓢箪, 瓢簞?) or yūgao (夕顔?), with the former word referring particularly to the larger-fruiting variety whose fruits are used mostly for making containers or other handicrafts and the latter referring to the smaller-fruiting variety whose fruits are more edible. Names used to refer particularly to the fruit of one or another variety of this species include fukube (瓠, 瓢, ふくべ?) and hisago (瓠, 匏, 瓢, ひさご?). It is most commonly sold in the form of dried, marinated strips known as kanpyō, and is commonly used as an ingredient for making makizushi (rolled sushi).
In Korea, it is known as bak (박) or jorongbak (조롱박).
In Burma, it is known as ဗူးသီး boo thee, a popular fruit; young leaves are also boiled and eaten with spicy hot, fermented fish sauce called nga peet. In the Philippines, it is known as upo. In Italian cuisine, it is known as cucuzza (plural cucuzze).
In Central America, the seeds of the calabash gourd are toasted and ground with other ingredients (including rice, cinnamon, and allspice) to make the drink horchata. (The calabash tree, Crescentia cujete, is known locally as morro or jícaro; that is another "calabash"). In Colombia and Venezuela, the calabash tree Crescentia cujete is known as a taparo or totumo (it is another "calabash" plant).
In Bangladesh, it is called lau (লাউ). In Nepali, it is called lauka (लौका). In Arabic, it is called qara. In Aramaic, it is called qura. In the Talmudic period the young were boiled, whilst the mature fruit are eaten as desert. The tender young gourd is cooked as a summer squash. In Vietnam, it is called bầu canh or bầu nậm, and is used in a variety of dishes: boiled, stir-fried, soup dishes and as a medicine.
Calabash is used in many string instruments in India as a resonator. Instruments that look like guitars are made of wood but they can have a calabash resonator at the end of the strings table called toomba. The sitar, the surbahar, the tanpura (south of India, tambura north of India), may have a toomba. In some cases the toomba may not be functional but if the instrument is large it keeps its place because of its balance function, that is the case of the Saraswati veena. Other instruments like Rudra Veena and vichitra veena have 2 large calabash resonators at both ends of the strings table. The Baul singers of Bengal have their musical instruments made out of calabash. The practice is also common among Buddhist and Jain sages.
These toombas are made of dried calabash gourds, using special cultivars that were originally imported from Africa and Madagascar. They are mostly grown in Bengal and near Miraj, Maharashtra. These gourds are valuable items and they are carefully tended, for example sometimes they are given injections to stop worms and insects from making holes while they are drying, etc.
In parts of India, the dried, unpunctured gourd is used as a float (called surai-kuduvai in Tamil) to learn swimming in rural areas.
Calabash is primarily used for utensils, such as cups, bowls, and basins in rural areas. It can be used for carrying water or can be made for carrying items, such as fish, when fishing. In some Caribbean countries, it is worked, painted and decorated as shoulder bags or other items by artisans, and sold to tourists. In Jamaica, it is also a reference to the natural lifestyle of Rastafarians. As a cup, bowl, or even water-pipe or "bong", the calabash is considered consistent with the "Ital" or vital lifestyle of not using refined products such as table salt, or using modern cooking methods, such as microwaves. In Haiti, the plant is called kalbas kouran, literally "running calabash", and is used to make the sacred rattle emblematic of the Vodou priesthood, called an asson. As such, the plant is highly respected. It is also the national tree of St. Lucia.
Hollowed out and dried calabashes are a very typical utensil in households across West Africa. They are used to clean rice, carry water, and as food containers. Smaller sizes are used as bowls to drink palm wine.
Calabashes are used in making the West African kora (a harp-lute), xalam/ngoni (a lute) and the goje (a traditional fiddle). They also serve as resonators underneath the balafon (West African marimba). The calabash is also used in making the shegureh (a Sierra Leonean women's rattle) and balangi (a Sierra Leonean type of balafon) musical instruments. Sometimes, large calabashes are simply hollowed, dried and used as percussion instruments, especially by Fulani, Songhai, Gur-speaking and Hausa peoples. In Nigeria, the calabash has been used to avoid a law requiring the wearing of a helmet on a motorcycle. In South Africa, it is commonly used as a drinking vessel by tribes such as the Zulus. Erbore tribe children in Ethiopia wear hats made from the calabash to protect them from the sun. Recently, the Soccer City stadium which hosted the FIFA World Cup has been completed and its shape takes inspiration from the calabash.
- Note that "jícara" refers to the Crescentia cujete calabash
In many rural parts of Mexico, the calabash is dried and carved hollow to create a bule or a guaje, a gourd used to carry water around like a canteen. The gourd cut in half, called jícara, gave the parallel name to a clay cup jícara.
- Note that "guacal" in Costa Rica refers to Crescentia cujete tree calabash.
The Costa Rican town of Santa Bárbara de Santa Cruz holds a traditional annual dance of the calabashes (baile de los guacales). Since 2000, the activity has been considered of cultural interest to the community, and all participants receive a hand-painted calabash vessel to thank them for their economic contribution (which they paid in the form of an entrance ticket).
In Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, calabash gourds are dried and carved into mates (Quichua word, adopted in Spanish language), the traditional container for the popular caffeinated tea-like drink brewed from the yerba mate plant (the container called cuia, porongo or cabaça in Brazil). In the same region is called mate also the calabash from where the drinking vessels are made, and in Peru (where the practice of drinking mate is not adopted) is a popular practice the making of mate burilado, "burilado" is the technique adopted for decorating the mate calabashes. In Brazil, gourds also commonly used as the resonator for the berimbau, the signature instrument of capoeira, a martial art/dance developed in Brazilian plantations by African slaves. The calabash gourd is possibly mankind's oldest instrument resonator.
Lagenaria siceraria "mate" type.
Mate burilado in Peru.
Berimbau, musical instrument in Brazil. The gourd fonctions as a resonator.
In the region where Incas lived (Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador), calabash gourds are known to have been used for medicinal purposes for over a thousand years by Andean cultures. The Inca culture applied folklore symbology to gourds to pass down from one generation to another, and this practice is still familiar and valued.
Bowls made of calabash were used by Indigenous Brazilians as utensils made to serve food, and the practice is still retained in some remote areas of Brazil (originally by populations of various ethnicities, origins and regions, but nowadays mainly the indigenes themselves).
- Note that "totuma" refers to the vessel made of Crescentia cujete calabash.
The president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, has suggested Venezuelans avoid showers longer than three minutes. Critics of Chavez have ridiculed this by reductio ad absurdum, ironically suggesting the use of a totuma to bathe (although Chavez himself did not suggest this)., inferring that people has to bathe with "a totuma of water", the quantity of water that only one totuma can hold. It's a joke because it's exaggeratting the original words, because a totuma is a device that carries very little quantity of water, not enough for bathing (not even to get wet). This reaction is usual in all countries, compare U.S. President Jimmy Carter's speech urging Americans to conserve energy during the US 1979 energy crisis and negative reaction by his critics.
The hulu is an ancient symbol for health.
In the old days, doctors would carry medicine inside it, so it has fabled properties for healing. The hulu is believed to absorb negative earth-based qi (energy) that would otherwise affect health, and is a traditional Chinese medicine cure. Dried calabash is also used as containers of liquids, often liquors or medicine. Calabash gourds were also grown in earthen molds to form different shapes with imprinted floral or arabesque design and dried to house pet crickets, which were kept for their song and fighting abilities. The texture of the gourd lends itself nicely to the sound of the animal, much like a musical instrument. It is a symbol of the Xian immortals.
Hulusi is a kind of flute.
Hulusi, the calabash gourd flute or bottle gourd flute, musical ethnic instrument.
In Hawaii, a calabash is a large serving bowl, usually made from a hardwood rather than from the calabash gourd as in Maroon cultures. It is used on a buffet table or in the middle of the dining table. The use of the calabash in Hawaii has led to terms like "calabash family" or "calabash cousins", indicating an extended family grown up around shared meals and close friendships.
This gourd is often dried when ripe and used as a percussion instrument called an ipu heke in contemporary and ancient hula.
Additionally, the gourd can be dried and used to smoke pipe tobacco. A typical design yielded by this squash is recognized (theatrically) as the pipe of Sherlock Holmes, but Doyle never mentioned Holmes using a calabash pipe. It was the preferred pipe for stage actors portraying Holmes, because they could balance this pipe better than other styles while delivering their lines. See, Smoking pipe (tobacco)#Calabash.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Lagenaria siceraria.|
- Multilingual taxonomic information at the University of Melbourne
- Calabashes used for flotation and to store fish during huge Nigerian fish festival
- Brief discussion of the species, uses, ecology, and etymology of generic and specific names.
- Lagenaria siceraria in West African plants – A Photo Guide.