Gourds: Birdhouses, Banjos, Stars, and the Blood of a King


Growing gourds – inedible hard-shelled cousins of the pumpkin and squash – is a wonderful gardening project for kids. Gourds come in all shapes and sizes, have catchy names, are simple to prepare (you pick them and let them sit), and just one hill or two will supply you with lots. And you can do all kinds of things with them.

Should you lack the time or space to grow your own, you can buy them. Try any farmer’s market in fall.

Amish Gourds, year round, sells clean dried gourds for crafters, tools and craft supplies, gourd birdhouse kits, gourd craft books, and more.

And, as it turns out, there’s more to gourds than meets the eye.


  Charles B. Heiser’s The Gourd Book (University of Oklahoma Press, 1993) is a fascinating and information-crammed account of the science, history, uses, and multicultural folklore of gourds. Learn all about biblical gourds, medicinal gourds, musical gourds, and ocean-going gourds. For older teenagers and adults.
  People have been using gourds for some 10,000 years. The Domestication of the Bottle Gourd has historical background info, a list of archaeological sites associated with gourds, and a hyperlinked resource list.
  From the Wayne’s Word online natural history textbook, The Wild and Wonderful World of Gourds is a fascinating and detailed illustrated history of the gourd family, with reference list, growing instructions, and seed sources. Learn about Argentinian yerba mate cups (gourds), the 19th-century national currency of Haiti (gourds), and the penis sheath gourds of New Guinea.
  For beginning gourd growers, Ohio State University Extension’s Growing and Curing Gourds in the Home Garden is a helpful fact sheet, with an accompanying list of seed suppliers. Grow a Penguin, a Caveman’s Club, or a bathtub’s-worth of Luffas.
  The Gourd Reserve has an illustrated Gourd ID Chart, a history of purple martins and birdhouse gourds, a list of native American gourd uses, instructions for harvesting, cleaning, and drying gourds, and galleries of gourd art.
  The American Gourd Society is a national organization that promotes all things gourd, from cultivation to crafts to competitions. The Society publishes a quarterly Gourd Magazine (each issue includes informational articles and a “Kid’s Korner” gourd project). An annual membership costs $15. Visit the website for a photo gallery of spectacular art gourds.
  A National Geographic’s Gourds Puzzler, kids can solve a series of simple online gourd jigsaw puzzles made from great color photographs of real gourds.


  The Gourd Dollhouse Tutorial has simple illustrated step-by-step instructions for making dollhouses from birdhouse or bottle gourds. Younger kids will need some help – the project calls for a Dremel tool and sandpaper – but the end result is irresistible.
  Or what about a gnome home? Fans of fairy gardens will love building gnome homes with gourds. For suggestions and photos, see How to Build a Gnome Home
  Gorgeous Gourds is a project for making fanciful little people from small ornamental gourds and other natural materials.
  For illustrated step-by-step instructions for making a gourd birdhouse, see Birds & Blooms.
  Jamaican Gourds has instructions for making a flower-patterned Jamaican gourd basket. Requires a drill and a wood-burning tool.
  By Ginger Summit and Jim Widess, The Complete Book of Gourd Craft (Sally Miner Publishing, 1998) has 22 projects, 55 decorative techniques, and lots of helpful color photographs for would-be gourd crafters.
  Making Gourd Musical Instruments by Ginger Summit and Jim Widess (Sterling, 2007) has instructions for making and playing over sixty different string, wind, and percussion instruments – all made from gourds – along with a lot of interesting historical background information and some gorgeous gourd photographs.  Try making your own fipple flute, water drum, kalimba (thumb piano), or temple gong. For all ages.
  The Richmond Indigenous Gourd Orchestra plays “Paleolithic lounge music” on instruments made from locally grown gourds. The site includes photos of the instruments and audio clips of gourd music.
  The (almost) definitive history of gourd banjos ranges from Africa to the West Indies, colonial America, and the western frontier. Also at the site are a gallery of gourd banjos and selections of gourd banjo music.
  Learn all about the shekere – a beaded gourd rattle, originally from West Africa – and find out how to make and play one of your own.
  Make a Native American Rattle has complete illustrated instructions for a terrific gourd-based rattle. (You’ll also need paint and a dowel stick.)


  F.N. Monjo’s The Drinking Gourd (HarperCollins, 1993) is the story of a family fleeing north to escape slavery, using the Big Dipper (the “Drinking Gourd”) as a directional guide. They shelter at Deacon Fuller’s house, which is a station on the Underground Railroad, where young Tommy Fuller discovers them – and has a soul-searching discussion with his father about breaking the law. For ages 5-8.
  In Jeanette Winters’s Follow the Drinking Gourd (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2008), an old sailor named Peg Leg Joe travels from plantation to plantation in the days before the Civil War, teaching the slaves the words to a song that holds the key to the way north to freedom. Illustrated with dramatic paintings. For ages 5-8.
  Follow the Drinking Gourd: A Cultural History is a history of the “Follow the Drinking Gourd” folk song, with an explanation of what the lyrics mean, audio clips of performances, a children’s book list, and a teacher’s guide.
  Franklyn M. Branley’s The Big Dipper (HarperCollins, 1991), one of the Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out science series, is an introduction to the Dipper/Drinking Gourd. Included is a diagram showing the changing position of the Dipper in the night sky through the seasons of the year, and the names of all the Dipper’s stars. For ages 4-8.
  E.C. Krupp’s The Big Dipper and You (HarperTrophy, 1999) is sadly out of print, but worth tracking down through libraries and used-book sources. In this 48-page overview of the northern hemisphere’s best-known asterism (that is, a part of a constellation), readers learn why the Dipper handle hangs down (like an icicle) in winter) and points up (like a dipper full of cold lemonade) in summer, and discover that the ancient Persians used the second (double) star in the Dipper’s handle as a test of eyesight. For ages 6-10.
  Nancy I. Sanders’s D is for Drinking Gourd (Sleeping Bear Press, 2011) is an African-American alphabet book in which each letter stands for an event, cultural feature, or influential person in African-American history. A, for example, is for Abolitionist, D for Drinking Gourd, K for Kwanzaa, and X for Malcolm X. Each letter is accompanied by a four-line poem, an explanatory historical note, and a full-page watercolor painting. For ages 6-10.
  This detailed Teacher’s Guide to accompany D is for Drinking Gourd has vocabulary lists, exercises and puzzles, templates for publishing an abolitionist newspaper, a reader’s theater play (“From Station to Station on the Underground Railroad”), and a Who Am I? quiz on famous African-Americans.


  In James Rumford’s Calabash Cat and His Amazing Journey (Houghton Mifflin, 2003), a curious cat sets out from Africa to see where the world ends. He travels across desert, grassland, jungle, and ocean, helped by many animals along the way, all drawn in a stylized fashion that imitates the gourd art of the Kotoko people of Chad. For ages 4-8.
  The Calabash Kids is a folktale from Tanzania, told by Aaron Shepard, in which a lonely old woman prays to the Great Mountain Spirit for help, and receives a gift of gourd seeds. Once the gourds are grown, picked, and dried, they magically turn into children. There’s also a useful lesson here about the evils of name-calling. For ages 3-9.
  The Magic Gourd by Baba Wague Diakite (Scholastic, 2003) is a retelling of an African folktale in which Rabbit saves a chameleon from a thorn bush, and is given in reward a magic gourd that fills with anything its owner wishes for. When the gourd is stolen by a greedy king, Chameleon and Rabbit join forces to teach him a valuable lesson. For ages 6-10.
  In Disney’s live-action Chinese fantasy The Secret of the Magic Gourd (2007), eleven-year-old Ray (or Wang Bao), imaginative but lazy, finds a Magic Gourd (named Bailey) that will grant him anything he wishes for, provided he keeps the gourd a secret. Ray’s wishes, however, continually lead to disaster – a lot of the things Ray wishes for, for example, Bailey simply steals from someone else. The lessons ultimately learned have to do with honesty, the value of work, and the benefits of doing things for oneself. Made in China, in Chinese; viewers have a choice of English dubbing or subtitles. Available on DVD, or from Amazon Instant Video. Rated G. For ages 5-10.
  Animated Tales of the World has teaching suggestions, discussion questions, follow-up activities, and resources to accompany The Secret of the Magic Gourd.
  Volume 4 in the 10-book Korean Folktales for Children series (Duance Vorhees, Mark Mueller, and Pak Mi-Son; Hollym International, 1990) has illustrated versions of two traditional children’s stories: “The Seven Brothers and the Big Dipper” and “Hungbu, Nolbu, and the Magic Gourds.” In this last, a bird gives a pair of brothers, one kind and generous, one greedy and mean, some magic gourd seeds. The text is in both English and Korean. For ages 6-10.
  Caren Ke’ala Loebel-Fried’s Legend of the Gourd (Bishop Museum Press, 2010), gorgeously illustrated with woodcuts, is a picture-book interpretation of a magical Hawaiian folktale that explains how the people of Kamaoa Plain came to be called the People of the Gourd. For ages 6 and up.


  The blood of King Louis XVI – guillotined during the French Revolution – may be hidden inside a…gourd. Really. Read all about it here
  Also see Bloody Gourd May Contain a Beheaded King’s DNA from Wired Science.
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