Imagine this: eating calabash stew from a calabash bowl while listening to calabash music. With a plant this old, widespread, and diverse,such a scenario is entirely plausible and may well have played itself out countless times over the centuries. 

A broadly adapted plant 

The calabash gourd grows on a climbing, annual vine. Known variously as the bottle gourd, long melon, birdhouse gourd, New Guinea bean, Tasmania bean, and opo squash, the calabash traces its origins to the African continent. It spread out from there many years ago and is now found on the rest of Earth’s continents (except Antarctica), and has been adopted into many traditional cultures around the world. 

Like other members of the cucurbits – the gourd family – the calabash vine grows very rapidly and can reach up to nine meters in length. Once it begins flowering, this prolific plant can set one gourd each day for up to 45 days. Its large white flowers open at night, and there are separate male and female flowers on the same vine. 

Calabash fruits are either harvested green for fresh consumption, orare dried and cured for other practical or decorative uses. The gourds come in an extreme variety of shapes and sizes, from long and skinny to short and fat, the classic “birdhouse” hourglass being the most iconic. 

“Please pass the calabash!” 

With its long and varied history, the humble calabash has worked its way into many different cultural dishesaround the world. It can be found in Chinese stir-fries, spicy Indian curries, and Italian soups and pastas. The leaves are also used in Italian minestra di tenerumi soup and eaten as greens in Vietnam. And the seeds can be prepared and consumed as well, just like those of the pumpkin. 

One plant, many uses 

The calabash, however, is perhaps most well-known for its non-culinary uses. When properly dried and cured, the gourd is highly durable, forming a functional and renewable container that can even be used to hold water or other liquids. For example, Argentinians drink mate multiple times a day from their calabash cups and the Maasai of Kenya milk their cows into calabash ‘buckets’.And really, there is no end of bowls and ladles and other such concave recipients and utensils that have been fashioned from the calabash gourd. 

Wherever the dried gourds have made their way into practical use, local artists have found their smooth, hard shells to be a perfect canvason which to carve culturally significant decorations and depictions. But calabash art doesn’t stop at the visual; calabash percussion instruments abound, and the gentle roundness of the gourd lends itself well as an acoustic resonator on specific Indian stringed instruments.  

One plant, many uses

This humble gourd has reached its tendrils into many corners of the world, lending its nutrition and its functional practicality to local cultures at each new stop along the way. The many purposes filled by this one plant remind us that our diversity can coexist with our unity. We’re not all the same shape or size, we don’t all do the same thing, but we’re all made of the same stuff.