Gourd-grower takes her hobby from seed to work of art

Jennifer Davis

"Are these fun or what?" says Bonnie Cox, laughing as she runs her hand along the smooth belly of a hanging gourd. With its hourglass figure, it's no wonder this retired midwife has made gourds her new passion. The hanging gourds look pregnant themselves, ready to burst.

"Pregnant means full of promise, and that's what gourds are."

Cox, the new president of the Illinois Gourd Society, grows gourds in her Peoria Heights front yard, her neighbor's back yard and at another friend's farm. And she's currently eyeing the fence between their yards for next year.

"I began making things with them after I retired. Growing them is a natural progression from using them. I've always really loved the shape and size, nature and feel of gourds, but I never had the time or opportunity to get to know them when I was working full time."

Growing gourds is fairly easy and fun — "you can almost see them grow" — provided you have enough space and sun.

"Last year I planted some vines and just had vines, no gourds. I didn't have enough sun," said Cox. But this year she fared much better, even growing a monster-sized long-handled dipper gourd that, at 55 inches long, took first place this year at the Illinois gourd festival and third place at Ohio's gourd festival, which is one of the oldest in the country.

As satisfying as growing them can be, it's obvious her true passion is creating art from her harvest. Her home is filled with carved, painted, etched and dyed gourds — some her own, some from artists she admires. She has several pieces from Bonnie Gibson, a self-taught artisan from Arizona known for her Southwestern-themed gourds.

Some no longer even resemble gourds, but wood or ceramic.

"You can treat a gourd like wood if it's thick," says Cox, displaying a piece she made at the Illinois Gourd Festival in September. Her "ocean drum" has a natural goat skin on its underside and is filled with buckshot. When tilted, the buckshot sounds amazingly like crashing ocean waves.

"One of my goals as president is to strengthen the regions," said Cox, noting there are seven regions and nearly 200 members in Illinois. Nationwide, 24 states have gourd societies and most of them can be found through the American Gourd Society's Web site at

"I get the most pleasure out of sharing with other people. My background is education. I taught midwifery for the University of Illinois. You do get satisfaction and pleasure in having an idea and seeing it come to life. Gourd artists will say individual gourds speak to them."

Cox used to build birdhouses out of her gourds, which she sold at local farmers' markets. The demand was great, too great. "I sold probably a couple hundred birdhouses for $20 each," she says. But it bit into her time to work more creatively with the gourds and she stopped. Currently, she has several works in progress, including one where she is woodburning the face of a wolf into a gourd with intricate detail.

Journal Star


Gourds can be used as a number of things, including bowls or bottles. Gourds are also used as resonating chambers on certain musical instruments, including the berimbau and other stringed instruments and drums. Gourds are also used as a tool for sipping yerba mate by means of a bombilla in Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil, where it is called “cuia.” Birdhouse gourds are commonly used in the U.S. for group housing for purple martins. (