Although sometimes eaten when young, there are many other uses for the bottle gourd. Discover more about the unusual calabash gourd and how to grow it.
Aptly named due to its bottle-like shape, the bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria), or calabash cucumber as it is also known, is often used for ornamental purposes. Read on to find out how to grow these interesting gourds and their possible uses.
Bottle gourd: origin and characteristics
Most likely to have originated from tropical Africa thousands of years ago, the bottle gourd is now grown in warmer climates all around the globe. Although it goes under a multitude of other names including the birdhouse gourd, dudi, lauki and white flowered gourd, the bottle gourd is easily recognisable due to its shape. As a sun-loving member of the Cucurbitaceae family, you can grow the bottle gourd here in the United Kingdom either in a greenhouse or a sunny and sheltered spot outdoors.
The bottle gourd is a large plant that can produce climbing or trailing vines up to 10m in length. As an annual plant, the bottle gourd is frost-tender and grows best when temperatures are above 20 °C. From bulky brown seeds, it develops large and lobed green leaves and white bell-shaped flowers with 5 petals in early summer. The skins are soft when young but harden as the fruits mature. Reliant on pollinators or hand-pollination, the bottle gourd produces both male and female flowers, which open at night and are loved by nocturnal insects.
Bottle gourds are available in a wide array of shapes ranging from miniature bottles or swan necks to elongated snake gourds that can grow to 2m long. Furthermore, bottle gourds vary in colour from pale green or yellow to even more ornate striped varieties.
Types of bottle gourds
Here are a few of the different types of bottle gourd you can grow at home:
- ‘Birdhouse‘: bulbous-shaped gourd with light green skin. Grows to around 20cm long by 14cm wide. Ideal for drilling and making a birdhouse.
- ‘Dancing Spinning‘: produces a large crop of small green and white striped gourds up top 8cm in length. Ideal to use as small ornaments or as spinning toys for children.
- ‘Pear Bicolour‘: stunning two-tone striped gourd with a yellow top and green bottom. Suitable for use as a calabash bowl or vessel once dried.
- ‘Speckled Swan’: long curved neck, reminiscent of a swan. Dark green skin with creamy-white speckles. Up to 20cm across at its widest. Flat bottomed.
Planting bottle gourds
Bottle gourds require a long growing season for the fruits to mature and fully ripen. However, you can give calabash a head start by sowing them indoors in March. To sow calabash seeds, prefill a 9cm pot with a peat-free multi-purpose compost and sow 2 to 3 seeds at a depth of 2 to 3cm. Water the seeds in and place the pot in a propagator at 18 to 21 °C or cover with cling film and position on a sunny windowsill. Keep the soil moist but not wet and remove the cover every few days to allow excess moisture to escape.
The seeds should germinate within 1 to 2 weeks, after which you can remove any cover and all but the strongest seedling. Grow the bottle gourd seedlings on, keeping the soil moist and in a well-lit spot but out of any harsh direct sunlight. Being a tender annual, you can plant your bottle gourd outside once all risk of frost has passed and you have gradually hardened the plant off. As with other squash varieties, the bottle gourd prefers a fertile and moisture-retentive soil. To encourage the bottle gourd’s vigorous growth, you can prepare the planting site by adding some garden compost or well-rotted manure to enrich the soil. Our Plantura Organic Enriched Compost is ideal for this purpose, as it will help support the bottle gourd‘s growth and being peat-free is good for the environment.
- Perfect for all crops and ornamental plants with a high nutrient requirement & for raised beds
- Improves soil quality & promotes healthy root growth
- Peat-free & organic soil: CO2-saving composition
For the fruits to ripen, they require around 6 to 8 hours of sunlight per day and a sheltered position: a south-facing location or an unheated greenhouse is ideal. When it comes to planting bottle gourds, a spacing of 1m is advisable to give the plants enough room to grow. To plant your bottle gourd, dig a hole at least as deep as the root ball and twice as wide and plant it at the same depth it was previously planted. Backfill with soil, gently firming in as you go and water thoroughly. To allow the bottle gourd’s fruits to hang and develop into their ornamental shape, lift the vines off the ground by tying them to a climbing aid like a pumpkin trellis.
Bottle gourd care
To grow well, calabash fruits require an ample supply of nutrients and water throughout the growing season. When watering calabash, aim to keep the soil moist and water to the base of the plant to avoid wetting the foliage. Mulching bottle gourd plants will also help conserve moisture and keep any weeds at bay.
As a hungry plant, you can apply a high-potassium fertiliser to your calabash plants to support their flowering and fruit production. Our Plantura Liquid Tomato Food is perfect for feeding bottle gourds once the flowers begin to form, as it is potassium-rich and can easily be applied at the same time as watering.
For decorative and mature fruits, the bottle gourd harvest time is from September until October but before the first frost arrives. The calabash fruits are ready to harvest when the foliage has dried and withered and the fruits sound hollow when tapped. To harvest a mature calabash gourd, cut it off of the vine with a sharp knife, keeping around 5cm of stalk still attached. However, you can also harvest edible varieties when the fruits are still young like courgettes (Cucurbita pepo) to eat.
Bottle gourd benefits
It is important to note that ornamental gourds are poisonous and are only for decorative purposes. Furthermore, gourds tend to contain minimal flesh and are of little culinary use, unlike the butternut squash (Cucurbita moschata) for example. However, certain edible calabash varieties are said to be high in fibre, vitamins and minerals and are used for cooking, juicing and in Ayurvedic practices. It is generally accepted that edible varieties of calabash or squashes are safe for pets to eat. Nevertheless, the fruits must be cooked first and only given in small amounts. Furthermore, as with humans, any poisonous ornamental gourds should not be given to animals.
Practical uses of the bottle gourd can include vessels, bowls, lamp bases and even musical instruments. However, to use calabash gourds for such uses you need to dry them out first. To dry a calabash gourd, wash and allow it to dry in a light and well-ventilated spot for around a week. Once the skin is completely dry, you can hang it in a dark but airy room for 6 to 12 months until it is completely dry inside and the seeds rattle when shaken.
Another unusual-looking type of squash is the Hokkaido pumpkin (Cucurbita maxima). Discover how to grow the Uchiki kuri squash in our separate article.