March 2, 2015 Groundwood Books

Charis Wahl and the Bottle Gourd

Charis Wahl’s new book, Rosario’s Fig Tree, is about a little girl whose neighbor has a very green thumb. Rosario grows “tomatoes and peppers and beans and zucchinis and cucumbers and eggplants and lots of things I don’t know.” The book is inspired by the people on Charis’s street, and in honor of its publication she’s shared a story of her own about mysterious things growing in the garden next door.


We have a lattice fence between our backyard and that of our neighbors. While our yard is pretty much a mess, theirs has neat lines of poles joined by strings, on which vines climb. Some of the vines climb the fence. They are a very pretty lime color and have large, bright flowers, a definite improvement on mere fence.

Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 3.33.35 PMOne day we realized that there was a two-foot-long, light-green object hanging over the fence — sort of like a giant caterpillar, but not hairy. We gently sent it back over the fence to its rightful home and thought no more about it.

Some time later, our neighbor came to the door and handed us the green object. There followed much mutual bowing and miming of “thank you” and “you’re welcome,” as we have no language in common, but no answer to the question of what to do with the unidentified crop.

Enter the internet: it turned out to be a bottle gourd, a cousin of a squash — no mystery there — but what kind was a revelation. Sure, you can eat it — we curried ours — and it’s frighteningly healthy, but that’s just the beginning. They are also used in cosmetics, as medicine containers, made into musical instruments and, yes, turned into water bottles. Dry them properly, give them a couple of hits of bleach, wax the inside surface and, eureka, Thermos is out of business.

And to think that I saw only a backyard filled with pretty vines. Silly me.

Charis Wahl is an author and editor of books for children and adults. She co-authored Doris McCarthy: My Life and co-edited Love, Hope, Optimism: An Informal Portrait of Jack Layton by Those Who Knew Him. Her next-door neighbor of thirty-five years inspired her to write Rosario’s Fig Tree. She lives in downtown Toronto.

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