Ipu seeds on gray cloth from bishopmuseum.org – “Most ipu gourds have lots of seeds that offer the opportunity for successful propagation if planted soon after the gourd matures.”
The ipu or bottle gourd can take on many useful shapes as it matures on the vine. Plants-medicinals.me
Living in a climate suitable for year-round growing, we can experiment with many different plants. Exotic flowers, fruiting trees, flavorful herbs, delicious vegetables and useful native Hawaiian plants are just a few selections we might make from our abundant palette of plant possibilities.
As the seasonal rains in Kona begin to diminish, we have the perfect opportunity to plant squash and gourds. These vines can grow beneath or around other plants or can cover a large, hot and sunny area quickly and productively. The dwindling rains should provide adequate water for them to get a good start while our usually drier winter months can provide the sun, heat and dry weather they prefer.
All gourds and squashes are in the Cucurbitaceae family, which includes 800 species and about 120 genera. Other members of the family include edibles like cucumber, watermelon and numerous different squashes. The ipu is a true gourd known botanically as Lagenaria siceraria.
Many of ipu’s ancestral family members originated in tropical Africa and Asia and made their way to South America. Their usefulness caused them to be included in many different cultures across the globe throughout history. The gourd, known in Hawaii as ipu, was likely brought here by the early Polynesian settlers, though it may have arrived here or in Polynesia, on its own since the gourds can remain afloat for long periods and the seeds are not destroyed by salt water.
Polynesian voyagers likely used gourds as water bottles, canoe bailers and as storage receptacles since they had no pottery. The thick walls and hard shells of the gourds made them utilitarian domestically and ideal for numerous cultural and artistic purposes.
Early Hawaiians developed gourd cultivation and use more extensively than any other Pacific Basin culture. They actively cultivated two varieties. The ipu manalo (sweet gourd) was grown for food and the ipu awaawa (bitter gourd) was grown to use medicinally and for containers. By selectively breeding the ipu awaawa, many different sizes and shapes were developed with a multitude of uses.
Ipu gourds were also a part of ancient Hawaiian legends, myths and rituals. Ipu came to represent the earth with the seeds of all beings contained within. This spirit of fertility inspired the ipu’s association with Lono, the god of fertility and agriculture.
Ipu plants grow as a climbing vine with stems reaching between 10 and 20 feet in length. The attractive 5-lobed leaves can get as large as 16 inches across, providing a showy, tropical look in a garden. Downy branched tendrils appear at nodes along the stem seeking support. Providing support that allows the gourds to develop off the ground and unencumbered will afford the best chance of producing disease-free ipu with a desirable shape.
After a few months, male flowers appear, followed in about a week by the female flowers. For maximum gourd production, it is advised to cut the central vine at eight to 10 feet which will stimulate extending branches with more female flowers, hence more fruit.
The small, single, night-blooming white flowers attract moth pollinators. To ensure quality gourds from the same genetic line, many growers hand-pollinate the female flowers by brushing the male flowers onto them and closing and tying the pollinated flowers to assure that the gourds will grow true to form.
The plants are easy to grow if you have a hot, sunny location, adequate water supply and lots of room or a good trellis or support system. They will often do best at warmer elevations, below 1,500 feet in Kona.
Young gourds appear soft, covered with downy hairs and usually white or light green. Inside is a white pulp containing flat, brown seeds. The skin of the immature fruit becomes smooth and harder as it matures. It will harden and become an even or mottled brown once it is fully mature.
During the maturation period of six to nine months, the fruit needs to be carefully tended and protected from physical damage. Protection from insects that lay their eggs in the developing fruit is also important. Nylon stockings make an excellent barrier against these insects. The gourds can also be shaped by wrapping or tying them with cord, while they are maturing. It is best to wait to harvest gourds until the stem has completely dried.
After harvest, ipu gourds are usually cured before being made into useful objects. Many curing and decorating techniques have been recently revived or reinvented and new techniques are being introduced as well.
Most of the gourds grown for cultural use are carefully tended as they grow to produce the desired shape. Those that have a full, round shape make good tops or bottoms for the ipu heke which is usually two gourds joined to create a hollow sound that defines the beat in hula dances. A revival in the art of decorating gourds has encouraged both growers and artists to learn more about ipu. Decorated gourds are known as ipu pawehe. Lots of information, videos and images about curing and decorating gourds can be found on the Internet by searching for “decorating ipu.”
This year’s Ipu Cultural Festival will offer lots of ideas and some help with growing and using ipu. The festival will consist of classes and workshops Sept. 9 at Mary Amos’ farm in Captain Cook. The festival is sponsored by the local Hawaii Gourd Society. Check their website at hawaiigourdsociety.com for more information.
Ipu seeds and plants are available through the two sources mentioned above as well as at Amy Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden in Captain Cook. Call 323-3318 for their current availability of plant material.
You might want to consider cultivating a native Hawaiian ipu gourd plant or two in your garden and use or share your harvest to good advantage.
Local ethnobotanist, Momi Subiono reviewed this column for agricultural and cultural accuracy.
Diana Duff is a local organic farmer as well as a plant adviser and consultant.