When I was a boy growing up on the east coast of South Africa, the use of the hollowed-out calabash as a container for liquids, grains, etc., was not uncommon in rural areas. Zulu tribesmen, in particular, used them extensively.
The shell was hard, could tolerate rough handling, and with anything like reasonable care would last for a decade.
Webster's dictionary tells me that the calabash is just another name for the bottle gourd, a member of the Lagenaria clan, which has been put to practical use in many areas of the world for thousands of years, including here in the Western Hemisphere.
I thought back to the calabash of my boyhood the other day when a pamphlet came to me through the mail. It was entitled, simply enough, ''Gourds,'' by Sally Emerson and Teresa Allara.
Gourds, the pamphlet points out, can be turned into a wide range of utensils for the home: containers for liquid and dry goods as well as flasks, ladles, spoons, scoops, cups, pitchers, strainers, vases, serving bowls, birdhouses and feeders, and even as lamp bases.
For the home gardener, the beauty of it all is that he can grow all this utility right in his own back yard. Moreover, gourds are simple to grow. If you can grow squash in your garden, you can grow gourds. The point to remember is that the gourd, like its cucurbit relatives, is a tropical plant that will not germinate in cold soil.
In the American South, with its long, hot growing season, sow the seeds directly into the garden. Northern gardeners, however, may find it beneficial to start their seeds indoors.
Plant the seeds eye-side (the little bumps on one end of the seed) down about one-half inch deep. As they are vigorous viners, sow about 5 seeds in a 24-inch hill, with each hill about 8 feet apart.
To hasten germination, place the seeds between pieces of wet flannel or paper toweling near a source of heat. Cover the toweling with a sheet of plastic to keep it from drying out. The seeds will germinate in one to two weeks.
When the sprouted rootlets have reached about one-half inch in length, transplant them to the hills outdoors or to flats or individual containers indoors.
It is recommended that seedlings started indoors should be transplanted outdoors two weeks after growth begins, or the plants may become spindly. Make the hills somewhat dish-shaped to hold water. Where summers are hot and dry, water thoroughly each week by flooding the hollows with water. As far as possible avoid wetting the leaves. By summer's end reduce the watering to get the fruit to mature.
If you grow your bottle gourds up a trellis or wire fence, they will hang down and grow in long cylindrical shapes. Fruits that form on the ground will be more squat and fatter in shape.
There is also much you can do to influence the shape of your gourd. At the hottest part of each day apply slight pressure to the gourd, as if you were trying to bend it. Do this consistently each day and the gourd will slowly grow in the direction of the pressure. Another option is to tie a piece of ribbon or rope around the center of the gourd. As it grows it will bulge out on each side of the rope.
Yet another option is to place the young gourd in a bottle and let it grow until it fills the bottle. At this stage, carefully break off the glass and the gourd will continue growing while retaining the bottle's shape.
Let your gourds grow until frost, then harvest them with an inch or two of stem attached. Wash the surface in a vinegar-and-water solution or in a household disinfectant, such as Lysol.
Now set them out to dry in a cool, airy spot on newspaper racks, or suspended by their stems from roof rafters. It will take between 3 and 6 months for the gourds to dry adequately, since they are 90 percent water at harvesttime. Obviously, the bigger the gourd the longer it will take to dry out. Turn the gourds every few days to aid in drying.
If some mold forms on the outer surface of the skin, don't be alarmed. In due course it can be brushed off.
The gourds will gradually change from pale green to yellow and finally to brown, at which stage you can begin to work them. There will be a fine, flaky skin over the shell when it is fully cured. Remove this by first wrapping the gourd in a warm, damp towel for two to three hours. Then rub off the skin with a steel-wool pad or vegetable scrubbing brush.
Sand down the rough spots and you can begin working on the gourd. In most cases it will be cut open, depending on its end use, at which stage the seeds and dry pulp can be removed. Those seeds, by the way, remain viable for several years, so you can plant them next season or several seasons down the road.
Gourd seeds are available from Carl Odom, Pinola, Miss. 39149; Nichols Herb and Rare Seeds, 1190 North Pacific Highway, Albany, Ore. 97321; and Park Seed Company, Greenwood, S.C. 29647.
The pamphlet on gourds, their cultivation and crafting, is available from Gourdjus, 556 61st Street, Oakland, Calif. 94609.