The Gourd Canteen

A period drinking vessel 

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The humble gourd, Lagenaria siceraria, was the disposable drinking bottle of the pre-industrial world. Also known as the calabash, white-flowered gourd, opo, long melon, suzza melon, New Guinea bean or Tasmanian bean, it has been cultivated for thousands of years, spreading from Africa throughout the rest of the world. Prized for the durable, waterproof rind that made it ideal for fashioning bowls, cups and bottles, it was later recognized and grown for food as well. Certain types are used in Asian cuisines, while the seeds are toasted and ground with other ingredients to produce horchata in Central America. 


Gourd harvest, Tacuinum Sanitatis of Vienna, 14th c.


St. James the Greater, c. 1489-1493, Gil de Siloe (Burgos, Spain), the Cloisters Collection.


Pilgrims on the Way of St. James, 1568, Roland zh, fotografiert am 29. September 2010 von einer Informationstafel in Hurden

Gourds play a part in many East Asian legends and are often endowed with properties even more remarkable than their ability to hold liquid. In China, used to carry medicine, the hulu 葫芦(gourd) became a symbol for health. The Taoist Immortal Zhang Guo kept his magical mule inside a gourd until he needed to ride it.

Hyotan 瓢箪 is the Japanese name for the gourd. The birth of Prince Shotoku in Japan was accompanied by a portent of a serpent rising from another magical gourd. A symbol of longevity and success in Japan, a gilded gourd was used as a battle standard by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who added a new gourd each time he won a victory. To this day, visitors to Sunomata Castle write wishes for success on small gourds. There is even a famous Zen koan about trying to capture a catfish with a gourd.


Gourd finial on the bridge at Sunomata Castle. 

Gifu Prefecture, Japan. Learn more...


Portent of Prince Shotoku's birth. 

Shotoku Taishi go-ichidaiki, print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, c. 1840, British Museum. 


A Zen koan.

Josetsu, Catching a Catfish with a Gourd, Muromachi Period (15th c.), Taizo-in Temple, Kyoto, Japan. 

While there is evidence that the Chinese carved elaborate molds to grow their gourds in, the humble canteen of the average traveler was likely undecorated and reasonably easy to replace if lost or broken.


Gourds were cultivated for both food and for containers. A gourd intended to be used for a bottle would be left on the vine later than those intended for food. Harvesting after the first frost assures that the vine is dead. The bottle gourd would be hung to dry somewhere dry and cool. The outside of the gourd should be periodically washed and dried to help prevent rot, using vinegar (or a mild bleach solution).  It can take six months or longer for the gourd to be useable. When it feels light and sounds hollow when tapped, it's ready. 

If you are not growing your own gourd plants, you can find dry gourds for sale. My current supplier is Welburn Gourd Farm in southern California. (They sell dried gourds, gourd craft supplies and they ship.)

Carefully saw off the top where the stem was, as close as you can to the top of the gourd. (Saw too low and you will end up with a hole too big to put a stopper in.)

Mark the sawn top with a pencil for the size of your stopper. (You can use a piece of wooden dowel or cork, either is fine.) Drill through the top, then widen the hole with a reamer as needed, checking the fit of your stopper. 


Now the exciting part: shaking the dried seeds and pith out a very small hole into a trash can. Gourd seeds are big, this takes patience. When the telltale rattle of gourd seeds has stopped, you want to give the inner rind a scrape to get rid of any loose pith. An old wire coathanger makes a good scraper. Or you can toss a handful of small nuts and bolts, or even some sharp pebbles inside, cap the opening and shake them around for a bit. Dump out the contents, give everything a good rinse with warm water, set upside down to drain and let dry overnight, or pop it in the oven on low heat for a half hour to speed drying.

Finishing your bottle:

Food-grade paraffin is used in cheese processing and some candy making applications, not to mention for sealing Mason jars. I mention this because my gourd shed the occasional flake of wax the first few times I used it. It will not hurt you at all if you do happen to drink any wax particles. Be thorough when you rinse your bottle and it will stop.

Beeswax is a more period material and is food safe, but it does have a scent, whereas paraffin does not. Paraffin can be found where canning supplies are sold and is relatively inexpensive, a one pound package of four bars running around $5.00 US. 


To coat (or re-coat) your gourd at home:

Paraffin wax is highly combustible. DO NOT MELT IT IN YOUR MICROWAVE!!!

A double boiler will allow you to control the amount of heat you’re using to melt the wax. All you need a couple of saucepans which can sit one on top of the other without tipping or falling through. You can substitute a metal or Pyrex mixing bowl. The two most important safety points are stability and controlling the heat: you don’t want anything falling over.

Have oven mitts/potholders and a funnel handy when it comes time to pour your wax into your gourd. If you don’t have a funnel, you can form one out of aluminum foil.

Break or cut the wax bar into smaller pieces. This will help it melt more quickly.

Pouring hot wax into a cold gourd could crack the gourd - and spatter molten wax everywhere. If it feels cool to the touch, setting it in the sun for 20 minues, or sticking it in the oven on the lowest setting for ten minutes should do. If you start the gourd in the oven when you set up your double boiler; that gives it plenty of time to warm. 

Take the larger pan and put a couple inches of water in it, then bring the water to a simmer. If it hits a rolling boil, turn the heat back down. Set the bowl or pan of wax chunks carefully on top. I don’t care how boring watching wax melt is, watch it. You don’t want a boil-over of your water or your top vessel falling over or bursting into flames.  


Make a thick pad with some paper towels. Set it nearby.

Take your gourd out of the oven with oven mitts when you think the wax is close to being pourable and insert the funnel. Once all the wax liquefies, you can start pouring it into the gourd. Cap the hole with the paper towel wad and swirl the wax around inside the gourd, making sure to tilt it sideways to coat the sides as far up as you can. Keep swirling the wax around: your ears will tell you when the wax has stopped moving.

If you spilled any excess wax on the outside of your gourd or around the top, wipe or peel it off once it’s cooled enough to do so. Let any wax remaining in or on your pouring bowl cool, then you can just peel it right off.

Give the wax time to set by itself. Rinse with cool water, tie some cord or leather thong around it for carrying and you should be ready to use your new medieval canteen!

Gourd nerding on the internet: art, folklore, history. 

Ching Dynasty molded gourds.

The oldest known molded gourd jar.

Hi resolution details of the Josetsu scroll.

Daruma and gourds.

Blog post about gourds in Japanese art and folklore.

17th c. Painting of a family enjoying an evening under a gourd arbor.

Domestication and history of the bottle gourd.

4000 year old Peruvian gourd.

How bottle gourds got to the Americas.

Blog post about gourds in Japanese art and folklore.

Bottle gourds in Roman provinces.

Emperor Tiberius's greenhouse.

Gourds in the Mediterranean.

Gourds in medieval manuscripts.

The Tacuinum Sanitatis at Gode Cookery.

Horticulture and Health in the Late Middle Ages.

Copyright 2019, Lisa A. Joseph

No HOBBY LOBBY products were used in these projects.