Buffalo Gourd — June 2011

With its large stiff leaves sticking upward like elephant ears and its huge yellow-gold blossoms beckoning all would-be pollinators, the buffalo gourd is perhaps the most distinctive and easily recognized plant species on the Preserve. This unmistakable species is a member of the gourd family, Cucurbitaceae, along with other types of gourds, squashes, melons, and cucumbers. There are 14 different species of the gourd family native to New Mexico classified into nine genera. Cucurbita foetidissima is one of three native New Mexican species in the genus Cucurbita, the Latin name for gourds. The species epithet comes from the Latin word foetid, meaning stinking or ill smelling. The suffix issima indicates the superlative version of the word, so not only is buffalo gourd a foul smelling plant, its scientific name declares that it is the most stinky gourd of all. Distinctly odiferous, especially when leaves or stems are crushed, the smell has rather politely been described as sweet, but unpleasant. Other common names for Cucurbita foetidissima are coyote melon, stinking gourd, Missouri gourd, and calabacilla loca.

Buffalo gourd is an herbaceous perennial vine that sprawls over the ground in all directions often forming a circular growth pattern that is over 20 feet in diameter. The ability to produce such a large amount of plant tissue each year, even under the extreme drought conditions we have experienced this year, owes primarily to an extensive underground root system. Reliable sources claim that the roots of a well-established plant may weigh far in excess of 100 pounds and therefore be capable of storing significant quantities of food and water. The stems are stout, covered with stiff hairs, and produce tendrils in addition to leaves. Like the stems, the leaves are rough-textured with a blue-gray hue. Each leaf appears like a slightly folded triangle with an acute-angled tip and may be up to one foot in length. Buffalo gourd plants are typically found in open areas with sandy soils, especially along roadsides, arroyos, and riverbanks.

The large solitary flowers are borne on stalks that arise in leaf axils from June through September. Buffalo gourd plants produce separate male and female flowers on the same plant. Both types of flowers have five outer green sepals and five large golden petals that are fused to form a funnel- shaped tube. The petals are rather thick and hairy and the outside of the floral tube is ribbed and greenish in color. Male flowers (see photo) tend to grow somewhat larger than female flowers, often reaching four inches in length. The structure that appears to be a single stamen inside the floral tube is actually three stamens with distinct filaments, but with their large anthers twisted together. The female flower has a spherical base and a single pistil with three light green convoluted stigmatic surfaces for receiving pollen from a variety of insects.

The fruits of buffalo gourd are spherical and typically reach about three inches in diameter. Initially a striped or mottled green, they become a muted gold color at maturity. With an extremely smooth surface, the gourds are often harvested by gourd artists and painted to produce an assortment of creations. Such gourd art can be seen at many New Mexico shops and galleries including Mountainair’s own Cibola Arts. Although inedible, the gourds do contain saponin and the husks have therefore been ground up and used for cleaning a variety of things, most notably washing clothes and as a shampoo. Purported medicinal uses of buffalo gourd include preparing a poultice for treating boils, skin sores, and saddle sores on horses. Despite its odor, buffalo gourd is a wonderful plant to have around for both practical and esthetic reasons. It attracts a variety of insect pollinators in large numbers, several of which undoubtedly also pollinate some of the other neighboring species. And it adds bold and unusual color and texture to the landscape that can be appreciated even from a distance where buffalo gourd’s fragrance remains undetected.

© 2011 Jerry Melaragno

PDF of this essay here.

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