Sunday, July 06, 2008

Buffalo Gourd

What’s blooming in the area: Tea and miniature roses, cholla, Russian sage, trumpet creeper, honeysuckle, silver lace vine, fern-leaf and bigleaf globemallows, alfalfa, white and yellow sweet clover, oxalis, wild licorice, stickleaf, tumble mustard, velvetweed, white evening primrose, scarlet beeblossom, scarlet gaura, bindweed, milkweed, buffalo gourd, bachelor buttons, purple coneflower, goat’s beard, hawkweed, wild lettuce, local dandelion, Hopi tea, hairy golden aster, native sunflower, blue grama grass.
What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Dr. Huey rose, red hot poker, golden spur columbine, coral beardtongue, hartweig, butterfly weed, yellow flax, chocolate flower, fern-leaf yarrow, blanket flower, coreopsis, anthemis, black-eyed Susan, Mexican hat; catalpa pods forming.
Looking east: Floribunda rose, Maltese cross, bouncing Bess, snow-in-summer, coral bells, ipomopsis, California poppy, pink veronica, pink salvia, tomatillo, hollyhock, winecup, sidalcea, rock rose, pink evening primrose; buds on sedum.
Looking south: Blaze, rugosa and rugosa hybrid roses, Illinois bundle flower, sweet pea, daylily; more raspberries ripening.
Looking west: Lilies, purple beardtongue, Rumanian sage, catmint, ladybells, perennial four o’clock, flax, speedwell, purple ice plant, white spurge, sea lavender; buds on Shasta daisy.
Bedding plants: Snapdragon, sweet alyssum, petunia, moss rose, Dahlberg daisy, French marigold, gazania.
Inside: Aptenia, bougainvillea.
Animal sightings: Quail with young, woodpecker on utility pole, green hummingbird on coral beardtongue, cricket in the house, bees on catmint, aphids, ants and grasshoppers.
Weather: Finally some rain Thursday, but the unwatered land is 2" of dry sand over bone dry dirt; 15:49 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: Some moisture moved through and the more xeric weeds have already responded. Now comes the buzz of small motors, soon to be followed by the smell of rotting vegetation.
One neighbor who’s half acre is covered by the previous owner’s pigweed periodically levels it to a lumpy carpet. Never mind pigweed, ragweed and Russian thistle all put out growth shorter than the weed whacker’s spool that quietly goes to seed for next year.
Another neighbor thinks a chain saw’s the answer to the Siberian elm and Russian olive that got past him. Every year or so he goes out, leaves a pile of brush for the rodents, and complains when the suckers come back.
Farther down the road, someone’s been trying to kill a buffalo gourd for years. All that’s happened is the vine moved from the center of the barbed-wire fence to a space between the corner post and a concrete block support. The white taproots can reach six feet and survive temperatures below -10 to come back when temperatures range between 68 and 86.
The upturned grey leaves crown his bank like meringue and cascade down the side like tiers of upswept roofs on an east Asian temple. When anything’s so conspicuous and so hard to kill, people ask what good is it.
Certainly not to eat. The gourd’s yellow-flesh may resemble squash, but the body rejects its bitter chemicals. In the early twentieth century, some Santa Clara told Smithsonian researchers they mixed finely ground pogoje root in cold water for a laxative. When Michael Moore tested traditional lore, he found only two people who’d ever tried it and both gave him such piteous looks he warns against its use. Perhaps that’s why the Paiute and Shoshoni restrict it to venereal diseases.
If it’s a member of the gourd family and can’t be eaten, the next guess of many is that it’s a rattle. A Tesuque woman told Gail Tierney and William Dunmire it can’t be used for dances: the skin’s too thin and doesn’t dry right. They tried and found she was right. The person who told L. S. M. Curtin the Navajo made special efforts to take gourds back from Peña Blanca may have been deliberately maligning a traditional enemy.
The plant’s so foul, people have reasoned it should be useful as an insecticide. A Cochiti elder crushed the gourd in water and used the liquid to repel squash bugs, while Albuquerque master gardeners have heard it’s enough to drape a vine over the fence. Unfortunately, it whets the appetites of cucumber beetles.
The vegetation also contains the saponins traditionally used for soap. Curtin found local Spanish-speaking women rubbed calabazilla gourds on wooden floors to remove grease while Dunmire and Tierney report Cochiti women used chunks to scrub pots and Sandia used them for clothes.
Carolyn Niethammer has obviously tried this because she warns the nearly invisible hairs on the striped green gourds become thorny when they dry and suggests her readers may need to put their clothes through several rinses. Perhaps that’s why the Kiowa and Mahuna mention it for hides and buckskins.
Still, people continue to look for uses for this habitue of fence rows and railroad tracks; it offends our sense of harmony with nature to think it’s only a geegaw of the gods. William Bemis spent years trying to raise Cucurbita foetidissima for animal feed because the seeds are 30-65% protein and their oil contains linoleic and oleic acids. The more intensely he grew them, the fewer seeds they produced.
Barry Goldstein tried promoting the starchy roots as an ethanol crop for eastern New Mexico, while several have patented insect traps that use the bitter cucurbitacins to lure insects to a more deadly poison. Since some of those terpenoid compounds found in other plants have shown they might fight cancer, researchers are analyzing the buffalo gourd chemicals to see if any might be useful. So far none report encouraging results, but the search continues.
I suspect all my neighbor wants are suggestions on how to remove it from his yard. It may repel squash bugs and tempt cucumber beetles, but it doesn’t do anything for pigweed. And, it stinks.
Notes:
Albuquerque Master Gardeners. "How Can I Get Rid of Squash Bugs?", available on-line.
Bemis, William P. Discussed by Anson E. Thompson, "Arid-land Industrial Crops" in J. Janick and J.E. Simon, Advances in New Crops, 1990, available on-line.Curtin, L. S. M. Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, 1947, republished 1997, with notes by Michael Moore.Dunmire, William M. and Gail D. Tierney. Wild Plants of the Pueblo Province, 1995, includes Cochiti, Sandia, and Tesuque.Goldstein, Barry. "Technical and Economical Feasibility of Buffalo Gourd as a Novel Energy Crop," 1988.Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany, 1998, and on-line database includes Edith Van Allen Murphey, Indian Uses of Native Plants, 1959 (Shoshoni); John Bruno Romero, The Botanical Lore of the California Indians, 1954 (Mahuna); Percy Train, James R. Henrichs and W. Andrew Archer, Medicinal Uses of Plants by Indian Tribes of Nevada, 1941 (Paiute, Shoshoni); and Paul A. Vestal and Richard Evans Schultes, The Economic Botany of the Kiowa Indians, 1939.Niethammer, Carolyn. American Indian Cooking: Recipes from the South West, 1999.Robbins, William Wilfred, John Peabody Harrington and Barbara Friere-Marreco, Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians, 1916.
Photograph: Buffalo gourd down the road, 28 June 2008.

1 comment:

crazynattie said...

Any luck for your neighbor on getting rid of the buffalo gourd? My yard is overcome with them and this years attempt to rid them has left an extreme amount of huge holes in my yard in need of fill. And yet they continue to come up, every single day. I have been digging roots up as big as basketballs. I want it gone!