Here in Florida, the months of June through September offer an ideal testing ground for how well vegetables can tolerate hot, steamy weather. Many common vegetables struggle in the sauna-like conditions, but we’re finding that Lageneria siceria produces food here all summer like a champion.
A member of the squash family, Lagenaria is an aggressively spreading vine, and is best grown on a trellis. Fruits harvested at the right stage for edibility have a mild, pleasant taste, intermediate between cucumber and zucchini/courgette.
The fruits are great cooked or raw. Reportedly they are extremely popular in Indian cooking. I’ve tried using the fruits in dishes – they cook rapidly, so I throw a bunch of chunks into a soup or pot of beans for the last few minutes of cooking, where they taste pleasant and filling
They’re also good raw. If you harvest them young enough, the skin is soft and edible. Left on the vine a little longer, the skin starts to toughen, and I find that it’s best to peel them. Sliced into veggie sticks, they are an ideal low-calorie snack to keep on hand in the refrigerator when you get an urge to nibble. They’re great mixed into a salad, and I have used them all on their own (with dressing) to make a cucumber salad. You can also use Lagenaria fruits to make excellent “zoodles”, the raw zucchini noodles that have become popular as a low-calorie main course for the health conscious.
If you let Lagenaria fruits stay on the vine past the edible stage, they develop a hard shell, and eventually dry out into a hollow gourd that can be used as a container. Some of the common names for the species reflect this usage, like bottle gourd, bird house gourd, and calabash (not to be confused with the calabash tree, Crescentia cujete, which also makes hard-shelled fruits that are used for containers).
There are numerous breeds of Lagenaria, with varying shapes. Some appear to have been bred especially for use as a container, with one type shaped like a sphere with long neck, well suited for use as a ladle, and another takes the form of two spheres connected by a narrow waist, used as a bird house. Varieties with oblong shapes appear to have been bred more for use as food, and those are what we’ve been experimenting with growing here.
One local farm in my area grew a Lagenaria trellis 160 feet long in the summer of 2019. For four months, from June through September, this planting produced 250 to 400 pounds of fruits every week (production continued at a lower level as the days shortened and weather cooled in October). The plants kept growing and producing all summer while other cucurbit family vegetables nearby were destroyed by disease or pests – powdery mildew killed the summer squashes, and caterpillars (possibly pickle worms) devoured every leaf and fruit of Indian Dosakaya cucumbers.
This planting offers some suggestive possibilities. That farm was experimenting with production and sale of this vegetable. Most of the sales went to people of Indian heritage, who were familiar with how to cook Lagenaria fruits. American shoppers at the farmers market seemed intimidated by the large size of fruits of the variety grown. Much of the crop went unsold. Next year the farm will try growing a smaller-fruited variety, harvest them at a slightly earlier stage, and market them to farmers market shoppers as a a low-calorie, good tasting, locally grown vegetable, primarily for eating raw.
Based on last years amazing production numbers, here are some estimates. Figuring conservatively, a 100 foot long trellis of Lagenaria, harvested while the skin is still tender, should be able to produce at least 100 pounds of fruits a week, probably more. Sold for a dollar a pound, that’s a hundred dollars a week, if the entire crop can be sold, which assumes that local shoppers and restaurants can be educated about using this vegetable. Labor costs of harvesting are low – maybe an hour of walking along the trellis with a cart or wheelbarrow during the weekly harvest, trimming off ripe fruits with a pair of pruners.
For a small farms in hot, humid climates, already selling vegetables at local markets, this offers potential as a profitable additional crop.
For consumers, it promises a locally grown, inexpensive, tasty vegetable that can help them reduce their calorie intake.
One thing to be cautious of in eating Lagenaria fruits. Occasionally if the fruits are poorly stored, they can develop a bitter flavor, and this is due to toxic cucurbitacins (unlike the healthful bitter compounds present in bitter melon, Momordica charantia). Especially if bitter Lagenaria fruits are juiced, the cucurbitacins can be concentrated to the point of being extremely toxic and possibly even lethal. Fortunately this is a toxic compound which is easy to detect by taste – do not eat Lagenaria fruits if they have even a hint of bitterness. I’ve eaten many of these, and I’ve never detected any bitter flavor. To best detect any potential bitter flavor in Lagenaria fruits, it’s safest not to mix them with bitter melon fruits. Apparently even in India, where this vegetable is very popular, poisonings from it are very rare. I wonder if some varieties produce lower levels of cucurbitacins even if poorly stored. That would certainly be a good direction for plant breeders to work towards.
In India, Lagenaria fruits have traditionally been used to help treat diabetes. Some lab research has reported evidence confirming that Lagenaria lowered blood glucose levels in diabetic animals.
Lagenaria is an extremely promising vegetable for areas that experience hot, humid weather – it should be grown much more widely in those areas. Members of the public should be educated about it as an excellent tasting substitute for cucumber and zucchini, which is available as a fresh, locally grown vegetable during seasons which those vegetables produce poorly as a result of heat and humidity.