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Originally published Sunday, November 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Plant Life

Weirdly wonderful gourds

Gourds not only perk up the fall garden, but have a long and fascinating history. They're believed to be the first plant humans domesticated. And nowadays they're a favorite of crafty types who like to carve, burn, paint and otherwise embellish them.

I spent years growing gourds up an arbor so that in October they'd hang down in all their weird variety of textures, shapes and sizes. I'd once seen a photo of a pergola in an English garden with magical looking golden orbs floating overhead to evoke the autumn equinox and was determined to emulate it on a smaller scale. When the weather cooperated with enough sunshine, my vines dangled at least a few gourds, anyway.

Gourds not only perk up the fall garden but have a long and fascinating history: The African bottle gourd is believed to be the first plant domesticated by humans, who spread it around the world as they migrated. People used gourds for bowls and bottles long before they made vessels of clay and stone; they also made masks, musical instruments and even jewelry from these hard-skinned fruits. My favorite bit of gourd trivia is that gourd skins were used in Neolithic surgery to replace missing portions of skulls. Could this be the urban myth of gourd lore? Or as Wikipedia puts it, "citation needed."

If you've only seen a bunch of bad gourd art, and there's plenty around, you're probably wondering what about these nonedible, almost creature-like fruits would cause any gardener to give them all the space, water and sun they need to mature.

This isn't a question you'd want to ask anywhere near the annual get-together of the newly formed Washington State Gourd Society (www.wagourdsociety.org). On the first weekend of October, enthusiasts took over Heritage Hall at the Thurston County Fairgrounds near Olympia. Baskets and boxes with gourds for sale filled the front porch and backyard; inside were hundreds of painted and embellished gourds. Might these be the most varied of all fruits? Some are long and skinny, like the snake gourd and Hercules's club. There are the textural warty kinds and the Maranka dolphin that looks as if covered in webs. Curvaceous African Zulu and Chinese bottle gourds appear designed to grace a Thanksgiving table, while my favorite gooseneck suggests more fauna than flora.

No wonder people are compelled to paint, burn and carve these blank slates whose shapes suggest, well, all kinds of things.

To gourd artist James (Oz) Ozburn, a bunch of little gourds he picked up on a trip to Eastern Washington looked like a chess set. He studied pictures of medieval characters for inspiration and turned mini-kettle gourds into pawns, larger mini-kettles into the kings, and used Chinese bottle gourds for the rest of the pieces. The potbellied little chess pieces have a well-fed, serene look, whether laid to rest in their case or set up on the board for a match.

Oz is like many of the gourd-society members in that he's a gourd fancier, not a gourd grower. He's into the artistic end of things, buying gourds from farmers and even sending away to Pennsylvania (www.amishgourds.com) for special items. Being more of a wood carver and burner than a gardener, Oz came upon gourds by accident. "If you're into wood burning, gourds are a wonderful medium to work on. They have no grains like wood, so the burned lines are much crisper."

Growing gourds can be a challenge on this side of the mountains. That's because, like their close kin pumpkins, they need heat to ripen. But the fun of trying is that the vines have huge leaves that look pretty cool climbing a fence or arbor (have a chain-link fence you want to disguise?) and you are never quite sure what shapes, colors or patterns you'll end up with because gourds evolve as they mature. They need to be dried in the garden or brought indoors as late as possible in autumn to be dried on wire shelves or somewhere air circulates freely. Over the months of drying, their innards dry up completely, leaving them light and hollow. Then in spring, simply clean the surface with a stiff brush and water, and they're ready for ... piling in baskets or, if you're so inclined, craftiness.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "A Pattern Garden." Her e-mail address is valeaston@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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