Many plants have entered their way into our lives but few have done so with as much flair as the calabash. The name ‘calabash’ is often used interchangeably with the term ‘gourde’. The term ‘calabash’ is derived from the French word calebasse and the Spanish word calabaza and is generally used more frequently than gourde.
The Calabash (Lagenaria siceraria), also known as bottle gourd has been described as one of nature’s greatest gifts to mankind. Of all the known plants, the calabash is one historians believe to be amongst the first to span the globe in prehistoric times. It also appears as one of the first cultivated plants in regions throughout the world and was utilised by every known culture within the Temperate and Tropical Zones.
The very earliest calabash specimens are seeds and fragments that were unearthed in Peru dating from 10,000 BC. Many archaeologists and anthropologists believe that the Calabash originated from Africa, but over the years have been carried from Africa to other parts of the world including Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Distribution may have been carried out in the course of human migration, or by fruits or seeds floating across the oceans.
By examining calabash that have been preserved in collections, together with analysis of folk tales and religious mythology the calabash has played a vitally important role in the changes that took place as humans became tool users.
Calabash fruit grows on both trees and plant vines. The fruit is harvested either when young and used as a vegetable, or harvested when mature, dried, and then used for a multitude of purposes. They were originally used as containers, long before baskets or pottery served that purpose and are still widely used today in parts of Africa storing every manner of product, both wet and dry and especially for the carriage of water.
Since the beginning of their history, they have had many uses, including food containers, kitchen tools, toys, musical instruments, pipes, fishing aids and decoration to name but a few. Today, calabash are still commonly used as containers for carrying water, milk, grains and flours, whilst the smaller calabash are often used as food serving bowls. In addition they are used for a wide variety of crafts, including jewellery, furniture, dishes, utensils and all forms of decoration.
Apart from the obvious, many historic facts exist for the use of the calabash: at a time when humans on several continents chewed betel nut mixed with crushed lime, it was carried in special calabash containers. Rubbing oils and body dyes, medicine, seeds, bait and gunpowder were stored and carried in specially constructed calabash canteens.
In Haiti, the gourd became valued not only for its functional uses, but was turned into an actual unit of currency. According to numerous accounts, in 1807 when Henri Christophe became governor of Haiti after the abolition of slavery, the country was bankrupt. People were entirely dependent on wild produce with gourds being an important source of food. Chief Christophe declared that every green gourd in the country was the property of the State and soldiers collected over two hundred thousand. When coffee beans were ready for harvest, the chief exchanged the beans for gourds, which gave both sustenance and a currency to the populace. The coffee was then sold to Europeans for gold, thus allowing Haiti to build up a stable metal currency. To honour this event in Haitian history, the unit of currency was then renamed as ‘the gourde’.
Historically calabash played such an essential role in the daily life of so many, it's no small wonder that they came to be used in religious and ceremonial rituals and were often believed to possess mystical properties. Evidence of this is found in both art and literature and also within the religious ceremonies and rituals of many cultures, some of which still exist today. Frequently medicine men and shaman used calabash as rattles, medicine bundles, altar pieces and containers for holy relics. The Huichol Indians in Mexico believed that the spirits returned to the calabash when they visited the earth so the interiors of the calabash were elaborately decorated with sacred symbols using beads or coloured yarns. In China the calabash was believed to have supernatural powers like a crystal ball: by looking into the calabash mystic elders could not only see the future but interpret the wishes of the Gods. Calabash cultivation, especially planting was often surrounded in ritual and ceremony and reserved for special individuals or groups of people within the community.
Calabash were also not only the vehicle by which man could address the spirits, but they provided the means through which the deities interacted with, and even created the earth. There are many examples of how the calabash, on being thrown down or split apart, became the heavens and the earth. According to one myth, the oceans, all the fish of the sea and all the creatures of the earth crawled out of a cracked calabash. Good spirits were believed to be transported to the earth within a gourd and evil spirits captured in the same vessel. Songs, chants and prayers in every language pay homage to the wonderful mystery and power of this remarkable plant.
The types of decorations that have been used to embellish the calabash are as diverse as the applications and the cultures that employed them. Some calabash were left plain or were decorated. Others were covered with exquisite detail using such unusual techniques that even today we are still unsure how the decoration was accomplished. With only simple tools and common objects, early craftsmen created impressive masterpieces of art and imagination.
Every Calabash is one of a kind, beautifully quirky, oddly shaped and with unusual shell patterns. A simple seed pod that has had so many uses but is still a beautiful object d’art which has been appreciated throughout history and today is still a humble fruit that can only be admired for so many reasons.