This story was originally published in October 2021.
It’s decorative gourd season, Mainers. The knobby, colorful squash may seem too pretty to eat, but you technically could eat this organic autumnal home decor if you really wanted to — it just might not be worth it.
Though ornamental gourds are often labeled as “inedible,” the majority of them are not toxic to humans. However, Rob Dumas, food science innovation coordinator at the University of Maine, said that the tiny, bumpy gourds often used for decoration would taste terrible and be difficult to skin, chop and otherwise prepare.
“I don’t know that those have significant culinary value in the sense that there’s probably not a whole lot to them in terms of flavor,” Dumas said. “You might be able to get away with slicing and roasting those, though you’re going to have a hard time processing some of them just due to their shape and actual flesh.”
There are notable exceptions to the toxicity rule, too. The round green and striped colocynth, for example, has reported toxic effects and is sometimes available commercially for strictly decorative uses. More often than not, though, these tiny gourds will just taste bitter or even have no taste at all.
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Dumas said that the types of gourds that are considered decorative have often been selectively bred for certain traits, and flavor is not one of them. Sometimes, though — especially at the grocery store — Dumas said there will be delicious gourds mixed in with the tiny, tasteless ones.
“I think that grocery stores tend to lump a pretty wide variety of squashes and pumpkins into that decorative gourd family,” Dumas said. “All of those weirdly shaped pumpkins and squashes that maybe folks are unfamiliar with, they are actually phenomenally delicious squash. One of the biggest of the decorative squashes is a blue hubbard and blue hubbard is fabulous. It’s like a giant butternut squash.”
In addition to blue hubbard, Dumas said to look out for turban squash, kabocha squash, speckled acorn squash and delicata squash.
Similarly, keep an eye out for small pumpkins. Though big jack-o’-lantern pumpkins often don’t taste great (seeds notwithstanding), some of the smaller pumpkins that are used as decorative are delicious.
“Those little pumpkins are often pie pumpkins or sugar pumpkins and they’re often quite good,” Dumas said. “They can be used in a variety of cooking applications with great results.”
With the wide variety of gorgeous edible squash out there, Dumas suggested rethinking your selection of decorative gourds.
“Rather than perpetuating something that has no culinary value, why not go to a farmstand and buy a selection of pumpkins that are equally visually pleasing and can also feed your family?” Dumas said.
“Then you’re also buying local. Go support a local farm stand, buy some beautiful pumpkins and delicatas, display them thoughtfully in your home and then move them into a basement or a cool closet somewhere and enjoy them throughout the winter.”