Once Upon a Calabash
May 3, 2023
By Karen Maxwell, Horticultural Specialist
Old-time television aficionados may remember the tagline “Goodnight Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.” To this day, I really don’t know to whom Jimmy Durante was speaking, but I’m reminded of it every time I happen upon our Calabash tree.
If you’ve never closely examined our riverside calabash, this is the best time of year to enjoy the blooms that are on the trunk (cauliflorously) and six months later a hard gourd, sometimes called a fruit, but truly a berry, develops at the former flower site, making these one of our more curious tropical trees. The flowers open for a single evening, and it takes the pollination of a bat while open, to produce the berry.
The calabash is part of a class of tropical understory trees with three genera – all of which share the same two traits: they bloom on their trunks and they are pollinated by bats. At Edison Ford, we have three species representing two of the genera, each with an interesting story to impart.
The riverside calabash, known as the “Common Calabash” (Crescentia cujete) and first to be discussed here, is not native to Florida; it is in the Bignoniaceae family and scholars still discuss whether the tree’s origins trace back to Africa or Asia. Though rarely found occurring naturally anymore in the wild, per National Geographic, this plant is only surpassed by the dog as to the extent of its worldwide distribution for a domestic species. Though not native, it doesn’t have an invasive tendency, so it’s a Florida Friendly candidate if you desire a neat, compact tree. We know the Common Calabash has been on site at the Estates since at least 1929 because Dr. Henry Nehrling wrote of it when describing this once wild landscape, though he never mentioned its precise location. Mrs. Mina Edison also featured this calabash on her preferred flora list for garden club tours at her winter home during the years 1935-1938.
It is thought that the Common Calabash was crossed with a large gourd calabash brought from Guyana in 1997, which can produce 20” wide gourds. The botanical name C. cujete (pronounced coo-yet-ay) is from the Brazilian word for gourd. The calabash gourd is well known as the source for colorful Brazilian maracas – the popular musical instruments (dried calabash gourds filled with dry mung beans), and as a reliable container for food and liquid, earning it another common name “Beggar Bowl Tree.” No part of the Common Calabash is edible for humans.
To be clear, the calabash tree is not the same as the calabash gourd, a popular vine that produces the bottle shaped gourd used to make bird houses. In South America, the fruit of the Common Calabash is also used to fashion a vessel for drinking, or sipping the Yerba Mate beverage, popular in Argentina. After the pulp is removed and the gourd is dried, they are ornately carved, and in the case of one I purchased in Patagonia, detailed with sterling silver.
Additionally, we also have a Winged Calabash (Crescentia alata), a small tree native to Mexico that produces edible seeds supposedly with the taste of licorice. Growing to a similar height as the Common Calabash (25 feet or so), the Winged Calabash has much smaller leaves but is structurally similar and ours is located near the edge of the ginger beds, just inside the McGregor Boulevard fence.
While I’ve always found the Common Calabash tree intriguing, I decided to write about the Calabash after reading up on our third species, the “Black Calabash,” a heavily canopied tree that grows on the edge of our Florida native plant collection adjacent to the Pool and Tea House complex.
Interestingly, the University of Florida does not consider the Black Calabash (Amphitecna latifolia) native, however several other flora authorities do, including The Kampong at the National Tropical Botanical Garden (Coral Gables, FL), Kew Gardens (UK), Atlas of Florida Plants, Institute for Regional Conservation (Florida) and the Foundation for Latin American Anthropological Research (FLAAR) based in Guatemala.
There are several important features that distinguish the Black Calabash from the Common Calabash – most importantly the Black Calabash is edible, while the Common Calabash may be edible by horses, but definitely not for humans. The Common Calabash is not at all salt tolerant, but there is a great deal written about the growing conditions where the Black Calabash is usually found, such as coastal rivers and coastal hammocks that often include mangroves. The branches of the Black Calabash will root if they grow low enough to reach the silky muck of coastal hammocks and will develop a dense thicket to absorb tidal surge.
The Black Calabash also produces sessile or cauliflorous flowers and fruits, though it appears that the flowers of the Black Calabash are not perfect, meaning the tree’s flowers do not have both male and female parts, which is why we have never seen a gourd develop on our singular Black Calabash. Though I can’t confirm from experience, there are writings that say the Black Calabash gourd is lightweight and floats, and, as with sea-going coconuts,they can travel long distances, so that might explain how the tree has a naturally large native range.
As all three species of the calabash at the Estates are strongly identified with Central American cultures, tracking back the specific trees and their uses through their Spanish names is a challenge. “Jicaro de playa” (Jicaro of the beach) would suggest the Black Calabash due to its proximity to water; however, we see this Spanish epithet used for any one of the calabash trees. Common names are as interchangeable as nicknames, and it is only quite recently that researchers at the Foundation for Latin American Anthropological Research (FLAAR) have identified that the Black Calabash was important in Mayan ethnobotany and they are just re-discovering its value in medicine. In Costa Rica and Nicaragua, the seeds have been used as a cocoa substitute.
There are no serious pest problems associated with Black Calabash and the tree is not known to be invasive. It will provide a dense handsome canopy where planted, keeping in mind its love of water. While it may take some doing to source a tree, the Black Calabash known for its rot-resistant hardwood might be an excellent addition to your coastal native landscape. The third characteristic common to all of the calabash trees, is that their rough and deeply scored bark provides an excellent host for epiphytic orchids.
We hope you will enjoy locating and comparing our three Calabash trees on your next visit!