Snuff boxes made from gourds


Kew's Economic Botany Collection houses around 60 gourds in a variety of shapes and sizes, most collected between 1850 and 1900

Gourds have been used by many societies in vast and diverse ways. These oddly-shaped, hard-skinned fruits come from various plants in the cucumber family (Cucurbitaceae). Their closest relatives are the melon, pumpkin and squash. The gourds in Kew's collection illustrate the diversity of ways humans have used gourds, including water bottles, pipes, snuff boxes, musical instruments and even cricket cages. Some of the gourds have been formed to suit their specific uses, being shaped in a mould or tied with string as they were grown.

The bottle gourd

The most widely used of the gourd species is the bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria). Most of the Collection's gourds are from this species. The bottle gourd was one of the few plants cultivated in both the New and Old worlds in prehistoric times. Botanists believe the plant may have originated in Africa and then floated across the seas to South America. This gourd probably was first used as a water carrier, but quickly developed more diverse purposes; the Hawaiians alone had over 40 uses for this gourd. Societies used the bottle gourd for storing dry grains, churning butter and cheese, and brewing beer. The gourds at Kew illustrate many of these uses. Many societies made snuff boxes out of tiny bottle gourds, decorating them in a variety of ways. Kew has a wide range of snuff boxes. Notice the many different ways these tiny gourds were decorated.

One of the bottle gourd's most common use is as a musical instrument. The hollowed-out plant has been turned into a drum, rattle, scraper, and even a wind or stringed instrument. The Collection at Kew houses several musical instruments fashioned out of gourds. The musical instrument illustrated here is a Hinnari, formed by hanging two hollow gourds from a string. This highly decorated instrument came from Madras, India.

Declining use of gourds

There is great concern today that the diverse forms of the bottle gourd are disappearing. Societies have replaced gourds with more modern wares, such as pottery, aluminium or plastic. This has resulted in a decline in the traditional importance of the gourd and in its cultivation, making the examples at Kew all the more fascinating. Perhaps we can soon expect a renewed interest in collecting those gourds still surviving today, in order that we may preserve something of this versatile and dynamic plant for future generations.

For further information on gourds see: Prendergast, H.D.V. & Decker-Walters, D.S. (2000). Preserving the gourd perspective (Lagenaria siceraria (Molina) Standl. [Cucurbitaceae]). Economic Botany 54(4): 424-426.