By Gary F. Slanga
Special to the Daily Herald
I was recently asked about a vining plant growing native in Central Texas that produces gourds the size of baseballs with the coloring of mini-watermelons. The plant is a member of the Cucurbitaceae, or squash, family. Its scientific name is Cucurbita foetidissima. Its most common name is buffalo gourd and it's native to the southwest. It also is known as wild pumpkin, wild gourd, Missouri gourd, Coyote gourd or fetid gourd. The last name derived from the fetid odor produced by the leaves when they are crushed.
Buffalo gourd is a fast-growing perennial that is very drought tolerant. It sends out long vines from a large, underground tuberous root that can be as large as 16 inches in diameter at the ground level. It usually splits into two descending roots that can go as deep as 3 feet. From this tuber, the long vines can extend for hundreds of feet along which large triangular green/gray leaves are produced. The gourd itself is usually 3 to 4 inches in diameter.
This plant has a long history, dating back an estimated 5,000 years as evidenced by seeds found in archaeological digs at the Hinds Cave historic site near the Pecos River. Native Americans valued this plant for a variety of uses. The root was used for medicinal purposes, the seeds are edible and the dried gourd, which turns yellow when mature, was used as a rattle in rituals.
The fetid odor of the crushed leaves acts as an insect repellent and insecticide. The oil can be used in cosmetics and the root, which is rich in a combination of saponins, steroids and sugars, and foams when water is added. It also was used as a shampoo and hand and laundry soap.
A word of caution is in order. The fruit and roots contain high levels of a group of triterpenoid glycosides that can be poisonous in high concentrations. All members of the domestic squash family produce these chemicals, but not in the high concentrations found in this native plant. So, keep children and pets from chewing or tasting them.
An expanded list of uses for this interesting and ancient plant, along with recipes for its use, can be found at the New Mexico State University's website, http://medplant.nmsu.edu/buffalo.shtm
Have any questions about gardening in Central Texas? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.