Gourds:Gods of the Garden

19/07/2012 11:14

12/12/2011 21:45

Folks have long associated gourds with foolish people. The charge "You're out of your gourd!" is not a new one, at least not in spirit. The ancients, too noticed how the shape of some gourds is not unlike that of the human head; and like us, they capitalized on the similarity and drew unflattering comparisons.

The classic example is a curious piece of Roman literature known as the Apocolocyntosis Claudii, composed by Seneca the Younger. You may think the Latin title of this satire is a mouthful, but the standard English translation, "The Pumpkinification of Claudius" is no day at the beach either for the easily tongue-tied! To be more accurate, we should actually translate Apocolocyntosis as "Gourdification," since no Roman had ever encountered one of the orange veggies we know by the name, "pumpkin," which is a New-World plant.

The satire pokes fun at the deceased Roman emperor, Claudius, a popular portrayal of whom is as something of a bumbler. More specifically, it pokes fun at his apotheosis, suggesting that Claudius' being turned into a god upon death (i.e., apotheosis, which was basically Imperial policy at the time) was about as believable as his being turned into a gourd. No doubt, the comedy fans at the time must have found Seneca's suggestion hilarious. But note that it was the gourd that was chosen as an instrument for derision. Not a walnut or an apple or a pomegranate, but specifically a gourd. There's just something humorous about gourds -- and, by extension, anybody associated with them.

You can trust me on that claim, because far from wanting to ridicule such people, I am one of them, myself. I've grown gourds since I was a child. Initially, it was the ornamental gourds that attracted my attention; but as an adult, the hard-shell gourds (Lagenaria) have captured my fancy, too.

The ornamentals are better-known among the general populace in North America. But for gourd aficionados, what places the hard-shell gourds a notch above their more colorful counterparts is their suitability for a variety of craft projects. And it's a phenomenon that goes way beyond the popular image of the hard-shell gourd being turned into a birdhouse.

Sure, you can do that with them. But why stop there? With just some paint and an Exacto knife, you can turn these gourds into better jack-o'-lanterns than you can make with carved pumpkins. Why? Because pumpkins rot, but hard-shell gourds do not: the same one can serve as your jack-o'-lantern for years.

Indeed, the first love of most gourd heads (beyond just the fun of watching them grow in the garden) comes in the painting of them. And some of the larger types provide a wide canvas for the artist. But experimenting with one medium leads to experimenting with another, and gourd enthusiasts soon find themselves trying leather dyes on gourds. The next craze will be pyro-engraving, sculpture, or perhaps attaching a variety of objects to gourds in artistic ways. Methods of gourd decorating are too numerous to list, especially since artists are essentially limited only by their imaginations. But I knew I was really hooked when I discovered carving gourds.

Let me elaborate on that, because not all gourds are created equal when it comes to carvability. The thicker the shell, the greater it lends itself to a conspicuous relief. It's easier to grow gourds with thick shells in climates warmer than my native New England, which led me on a quest to secure gourds harvested from more southerly regions. That quest culminated in my discovery of the ultimate convention of gourd heads, better known as the Ohio Gourd Show, an annual event that occurs in Greenville, Ohio.

Gourd farmers sell their wares at the Ohio Gourd Show; but as that word "show" indicates, it's much more than a marketplace. Primarily, it's a mecca for gourd artists. The show hosts competitions (divided into numerous classes), in which artists famed for their wizardry in this or that gourd-art medium seek blue-ribbon honors for exhibiting the most creative calabash. One of the sillier contests is for best gourd hat. I can get away with calling it silly, because I've entered this contest -- and won it (2011).

So is all this gourd mania symptomatic of a certain foolishness? I suppose so. But if I'm to make a fool of myself over anything in the garden, it's going to be gourds. In fact, I believe Seneca had it wrong in his "Gourdification" parody. The surprise is not that the Romans made Claudius a god. The surprise is that gourds have yet to be declared “gods of the garden.”

David Beaulieu

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