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Edible Bottle Gourd (Lagenaria siceraria) ; Chinese Okra (Luffa cylindrica)

 

The Legendary
Lagenaria siceraria

fava pod

(Cucuzzi Carazazzi (Snake Gourd) and our well-used MF Tractor)

Long Island has a fairly large population of second and third generation Italians (my grandparents on my mom's side came to America from Italy in the late 1800's) and as a result, I grew up eating vegetables that were considered a bit strange in the 1950's even in the U.S. One of these was the cucuzzi squash. The vines of cucuzzi caravazzi (the Italian edible gourd or Snake Gourd) grew in a great mass that climbed up the back fence into the trees. I marveled at the 2-3 inch white flowers that opened at dusk and were pollinated by the hawk moths that visited during the night. We would harvest the immature foot long fruit for dinner; later, the ones we missed among the foliage and in the trees matured into three or four foot baseball bat fruits that hung down from the vines. These were prizes that we displayed on the front porch along with our best fall pumpkins.

We ate the immature cucuzzi fruit cooked in tomato sauce, fried with eggplant, and steamed with a spattering of olive oil or butter. They were just as good as zucchini squash, some say better because of firmer texture and a mild, never bitter taste. But they aren't a zucchini.

We tend to think of zucchini squash as an Italian vegetable. In fact, the Italian Cocozelle (di Napoli) was the first "zucchini" to make it to the U.S. seed catalogs of the mid 1900's. Oddly, zucchini is Cucurbita pepo, a member of the pumpkin family and a new world species brought to Italy by European explorers. While much of Europe saw the pumpkins brought back from America as just that, hard shelled storage squash, the Italians viewed the green unripe fruit as; well, zucchini and ate them with gusto.

You see, the Italians were already eating cucuzzi squash and had been for centuries as were the Indians of southern Asia, the Vietnamese and Chinese (who call the squash "opu" or "opo"). Cucuzzi is old world and the lagenaria gourds have a long history of use in the Old World as food as well as for making storage containers and ornaments. The Italians quickly substituted the new pumpkin squash for Lagenaria squash and gradually bred their pumpkins to look more like little long green squashes. Why the quick transition from Lagenaria to Zucchini? The same reason we don't see the cucuzzi in the market much. It is a rampant viner, it needs support, it needs night flying insects to be pollinated, it needs warmth and a long growing period and it is just not as productive as the zucchini squash. But, oh, it is a squash for memories.

Those who have tried the immature lagenaria squash prepared like zucchini give it high grades. One fruit can go a long way to feeding a crowd and the texture and flavor often surpass other summer squash. We like the lagenaria.

Much About Opu

Gardeners know the group, not so much by their good taste, but as bottle gourds that can be cured and turned into ornamentals (penguin or swan gourds), storage containers (bushel basket gourd) or fashionable attire (New Guinea penis sheath gourd).

At Longwood Gardens (Pennsylvania) we saw an arbor built like a long tunnel covered with vines of cucuzzi caravazzi (snake squash). In the late summer and fall, a highlight of the childrens garden was the trellis with loads of 3-4 foot squash hanging down from the roof of the tunnel. Kids would just run through the tunnel of hanging squash with delight and I did the same. We duplicated the tunnel at the farm last year which was a lot of fun for those who came to the farm stand.

This year we decided to find the best edible lagenaria and looked at varieties being developed by breeders in India and China. We're still evaluating them, but the one pictured above was surprisingly early and productive.

kiwi trellis

(Opu on our Kiwi trellis bordered by a nice native sunflower)

s

(The edible gourd, also known as opu.)

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One of the nice things about adventure gardening is going where others dare not venture and making these neat discoveries.

Chinese Okra

okra

In China, Luffa cilindrica is known as sin qua. There are a number of distinct varieties of edible Luffa Gourd, there are ones with angular or ridged fruit and smooth cylindrical types (which I prefer). Known in some parts of the U.S. south as vine okra or Chinese Okra, the angular varieties do look a bit like okra.

More acclaimed in this country for the fibrous interior of mature fruit which can be dried and used as a cosmetic bath sponge, in other parts of the world, the young Luffa, is good eating, harvest when the fruit is still solid (before the fruit becomes puffy and soft). While the very young fruit can be sliced and added to salads where it gives a mild cucumber-like flavor, the fruit is esteemed in stir fry and in sauces because it has the ability to soak up the flavors and add texture. It is also batter dipped and fried.