Save the Calabash

By Thomas Martin


Calabash has come to represent a shape not a gourd
Nobody would expect an apple shaped pipe to be made from an apple. Like “calabash” the name represents the shape not the material. The Calabash pipe used to actually be made from a gourd (Lageneria vulgaris). To my knowledge, there are no makers of real Calabash pipes in the United States and so I decided to make it my goal to give it a try. Having made a handful or two of briar pipes, I learned that finding good briar is the challenge that Rainer Barbi calls “the dance.” I can tell you, finding a Calabash gourd although not impossible, is far more difficult.

Current wisdom suggests that acceptable gourds can only be grown in the Ladismith region of South Africa. When Calabash proliferated they were cultivated for the specific purpose of becoming a pipe. Presently, if you can find a farmer that grows the gourd he doesn’t grow it or shape it to be a pipe. In North America they are grown mostly for crafters. In Africa the are grown for crafters and for more utilitarian use.


Availability of Briar vs. Calabash
There is no shortage of briar, only a shortage of people will to break their backs harvesting it for little money. Briar can be found in Italy, Greece, Spain and Corsica. There are some old timers still digging it up and cache’s of old burl are supposed to exist in workshops around the world. Demand has decreased as well. The briar after being harvested has to be cured, milled and processed for the pipesmith. This industry is in the process of transitioning from supplying pipe making factories to supplying artisans making freehands.

I believe there should also be no shortage of gourds. Yet there is. If you do find a source for gourds, the odds of finding a suitable shape, with suitable wall thickness, lack of mold, mottling, or cracks is slim. The problem is not regional, it is economical. Nobody can afford to nurture and grow gourds as they did in the last century. Like briar, the process cannot be mechanized. Farmers need to now grow for the niche market; artisans like myself.

My personal search for Calabash
Via the internet I looked for gourds in California, New Mexico, Washington State, Canada and of course South Africa. My research also included the internet though little has been published online. Similarly, little has be written or published in traditional formats. There is but one book: The History of The Calabash by Gary Schrier. Fortunately the book is well researched, well written, and extremely informative.

The History of The Calabash states the US Calabash is of a different species, Lagenaria siceraria (Bottle Gourd) and can’t be used for pipe making. I was told you need Lageneria Vulgaris and that you can‘t make a pipe from a gourd grown in the United States. I figured I’d try anyway; after all “a rose by any other name is still a rose.“ Tell me something can’t be done and I’m apt to try. I do this to learn by my mistakes and to form my own conclusions, conclusions which might or might not be the same as the experts. Guess what?

My conclusions differ
You can make a pipe from the US Bottle gourd as you can with the Calabash., an extensive source of information about plants native to southern Africa says that the Lagenaria siceraria was previously known as Lagenaria vulgaris Ser. I believe the Bottle Gourd and the Calabash, indigenous to southern Africa, are the same plant species. Gourds with their seeds can travel great distances floating across the ocean like messages in a bottle. It is known that the Calabash seeds were purposefully brought to America in the early 1900’s by Agricultural Explorer David Fairchild for study and propagation.

In 1909, he wrote a circular (Circular No. 41) for the US Department of Agriculture called The South African Pipe Calabash. His audience was the home gardener. In theory the home gardener living in the States could grow their own gourds and for pennies fashion a pipe. Supposedly the growing season and climate in the states is not conducive to such an endeavor. Based on my experiments, I believe that the seeds have evolved and adapted to our climates and conditions, and are now suitable for pipe making. What differs among US gourds and South African gourds is the cultivation and care during the growing process. The US gourds are grown primarily for crafters and artists, not pipesmiths. The African gourds are also grown for crafters and for more utilitarian uses. Nobody seems to be growing them for pipes!

My search for suitable gourds
A few farmers returned my emails stating that the have thousands of gourds to sort through. I am still waiting to hear back from them. I did locate one farmer in the United States, one in Canada, and one in South Africa who grew gourds and were willing to try to supply me with gourds for pipe making. Elsa, a grower in Washington state, has been growing gourds for 4 years on twenty acres and could find only four (4) gourds, of thousands, suitable for pipes. She sent them out to me and I have used them to make two prototype Calabash pipes. Of the four, only three were usable but with much retrofitting. and experimentation. Of the three semi-suitable, I ruined one.

I am not the only pipe maker to face such calamity, such odds. Bill Taylor of Ashton Pipes had one (1) Calabash he planned to use to fashion a pipe for Gary Schrier in research for The History of The Calabash Pipe (to be reviewed in next month's newsletter.) The demonstration was to take place in Taylor’s London workshop. It was canceled because the gourd met “early mechanical destruction.” This was in 2001, and the odds aren’t getting any better. Or are they?

You need your “pitch rate” to be effectively nil
A pipe makers “pitch rate” is that percentage of briar which gets thrown away because of natural defect or human error. Such defect or calamity can occur at any stage in the pipe making process even as the pipe nears completion. Ruining a piece of briar, I tell myself “its only wood“. Ruining a gourd is devastating as you might not find a replacement.

Gone are the seeds, the culture and unfortunately, the demand. Even in the Ladismith area of South African, one Calabash farmer turned to US seeds as a source. Has the Calabash come full circle? They met with failure as the seeds which grew fine in the states failed to thrive in South Africa. I learned this first hand from a farmer in South Africa who had been growing the calabash for over a decade. He now has seeds which grow prolifically on his farm.

A conversation with South Africa
I spoke with that farmer in South Africa who told me that the Calabash (pipe) was “on its way down.” I said it is my goal to “bring it up again“, to resurrect what is evidentially a lost art. He knew of no one who made pipes except the blacks who use them to smoke “the hemp.” They are moving out of the farm lands to be nearer the cities. I didn’t pursue assuming the pipes to be crude utilitarian pipes lined with gypsum, not intended to last or to become collectable.

He also told me that they (the blacks - his words) use the gourds primarily to carry water, and their “treasures.” The farmer, presumably white, uses his gourds to grow his herbs in. When he spoke of the gourds usage, he became animated and his accent thickened to the point where I could no longer understand what he was saying. His wife uses them to make African art and crafts which she sells on the South African equivalent to Craigslist. Anything they can make with them, and sell, is a boon as jobs are scarce.

Their daughter acts as a liaison. She communicates with me from the city via email. Her father had asked me to make a sketch indicating my needs. I did my best, then scanned the sketches and emailed them to her. She then faxed them to her Dad. Like Elsa in Washington he too needed to sort through thousands of gourds. He has appoximately twenty to send me.

Contrary to popular belief
The peg and board method of shaping gourds (as outlined in the 1909 article) and in pipe catalogues, was not actually used in South Africa. They made dirt mounds to support the gourd in a position that would cause the appropriate bend. If any of these farmers are interested in growing gourds for the pipe trade (s)he will need to tend to each gourd almost daily during midday when the shell is less apt to crack. The South African farmer, and a farmer in Canada seem interested in growing the gourds for Calabash pipes. They both seem interested in the Clabash history and excited about its future.

That there is only one place in Turkey (Eskisehir) from which to get Meerschaum further complicates the Calabash pipe making process. In the early 1970s, Turkey banned the exportation of raw meerschaum nodules creating a Turkish Monopoly. They do however export pressed bowls. There were also Meerschaum deposits in Africa but it was inferior in quality. Schrier emphatically states that there is no difference in smoking quality between block Meerschaum bowls and pressed and only a slight difference in the coloring of the bowls after long-term use. Luckily the production methods for making them have improved and the meerschaum bowls that I received from Turkey are not pressed but reformed in a more gentle fashion, more conducive to consistency and the absorption of moisture.

Save the Calabash!
My conclusion is that “production” methods of the calabash gourds need also to change. By making Calabash pipes from gourd not briar I hope to bring back this lost craft. Since I consider myself and artist first, craftsman second, I bring to the pipe my on interpretations; namely the black stain necessitated by mottling. Mottling occurs on the shells of the gourds because they were neither scraped before drying, nor were they bleached by the sun.


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