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Lagenaria siceraria (Molina) Standl. 1930
pronounced: lag-en-AR-ee-uh sy-ker-AR-ee-uh
(Cucurbitaceae – the squash family)
common names: Calabash, Bottle Gourd
Lagenaria is from the Latin lagena, a flask or flagon – hence lagenarius, shaped like a flagon; siceraria comes from the Latin sicera, found in the Vulgate∗, a transliteration of the Greek σικερα (sikera), found in the Septuagint† as a transliteration of the Hebrew שׁכר (sekor), a strong fermented drink.
This is a native of Africa, which spread throughout the world by human migrations at a very early date. It is reckoned to have been one of the earliest domesticated plants, providing food, medicine, and a wide variety of utensils and musical instruments.
The leaves are simple, up to 40 long and broad, shortly and softly hairy, broadly egg-, kidney- or heart-shaped in outline, undivided, angular or faintly 3–7-lobed, with the lobes rounded; the margins are shallowly toothed. The leaf stalks are up to 30 cm long, thick, often hollow, densely hairy, with 2 small lateral glands inserted at the leaf base. The tendrils split in two. The flowers are stalked, with the female flower stalks shorter than the male. Both male and female flowers are on the same plant. There are 5 petals, cream or white with darker veins, pale yellow at the base, obovate, up to 4.5 cm long, opening in the evening and soon wilting. Most pollination is done at night, by moths. The fruits are large, variable in shape, up to about 80 by 20 cm, subglobose to cylindrical, flask-shaped or globose with a constriction above the middle; fleshy, densely hairy to ultimately glabrous, indehiscent; green, maturing yellowish or pale brown, the pulp drying out completely on ripening, leaving a thick, hard, yellow shell with almost nothing inside except the seeds.
Medicinal uses of the leaves, fruit and seeds have been reported from various countries, e.g. for chest and lung ailments, for treating intestinal worms, as a purgative, and as a headache remedy. In southern Africa, the leaves are commonly eaten as a vegetable, and are added fresh to maize porridge, or a relish is prepared from them, mixed with other plants. Dried leaves are stored for use in the lean season. The young shoots seem to be an important vegetable, unlike the young fruits that are considered by some to be a famine food; but in parts of southern Africa the young, sweet and green fruit is a popular cooked vegetable‡.
The Gourd Book (1979), by Charles Bixler Heiser, devotes more than half of its contents to Lagenaria siceraria. Numerous uses of the bottle gourd in various cultures are discussed and illustrated, even the use as penis sheathes in PNG! The archeologist Eurydice Kefalidou (2003) states that bottle gourds were found all over the Mediterranean as early as the Bronze Age (3rd & 2nd millennia BC). Containers crafted from gourds were in constant use in that region until the advent of plastic, as bottles for wine and water, dippers, salt containers, life jackets (gourds tied together) and rattles. A rich diversity of musical instruments has been made from them over the centuries.
The caterpillars of the Spiderling Moth Megalorhipida leucodactylus feed on this plant.
∗ the Latin bible
† the Greek translation of the Old Testament from the Hebrew, done in Alexandria in the 3rd & 2nd centuries BC
‡ some plants produce bitter fruits. These are considered poisonous, and not eaten.
Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.
Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2010, 2011
Page last updated 20th January 2018