Dominican Higüero Gourds
The first higüero gourd I saw was a lampshade in a restaurant. I assumed it was made of dried-out coconut shell, as it was rounded and had that lovely brown colour. But, when I asked the waiter, I found out it was actually a seed from the higüero tree.
It was beautiful. The artist had pierced it with little holes so that it projected pretty patterns onto the walls, when the light shone through it. I was fascinated.
I learned that the hard shell comes from a fruit which dries and hardens in the sun to form a wood-like material. You can scoop out the white flesh and carve patterns into the skin that dry on. Kind of like an inedible pumpkin.
The fruit take a really long time to ripen, up to seven months of hanging on the tree.
While the higüero tree is found in other tropical countries, the gourds elsewhere tend to be more rounded, like a grapefruit. The Dominican higüero variety produces an elliptical capsule about the same size and shape as a watermelon.
Fibre from the tree can be twisted into ropes, and the wood makes strong tools. All, in all, it’s a very useful tree.
The two dots above the ‘u’ indicate that higüero is pronounced ee-gweh-roh. In ‘gue’ syllables in Spanish, the ‘u’ is normally silent (pronounced geh), unless it carries an umlot which means the ‘u’ can join in the fun. There you go.
But back to the higüero at hand.
Nowadays, the higüero fruit is mostly used to make decorative objects and ornaments. But, historically, it was used in all sorts of ways.
The skin is strong, durable and holds water, making it ideal for kitchenware. Folk made big serving bowls (fruit cut in half lengthways), little eating bowls (fruit cut in half widthways), sieves, ladles, spoons, cups, vases, and much more.
Higüero pods that had been hollowed out through a small hole at the top were used to carry water. How’s that for an all-natural water canteen? With a bamboo straw, you’d be set.
But that’s not all. The Taino people native to the island used the higüero gourds to make music.
They filled small hollow gourds with little pebbles or hard peas to shake: maracas. They carved grooves into the shell on one side of the fruit and a hole on the other to make a scraping board: a güiro.
The Taino may have used the higüero to make hunting masks. The idea was that birds and animals were not frightened of the dried husks, so hunters cut out eyeholes and wore them over their faces as masks.
This would work especially well in water, where the hunter could wade in and be dismissed as a floating fruit by the prey. S-M-A-R-T.
Artisanal higüero products can make for a great souvenir from your vacation to Cabarete. Keep an eye out for sellers and stores around town, there are many that sell the handmade ornaments.
If you want a real traditional Dominican experience, you could even have a go at carving your own higüero decoration! Go out there and make some memories! Just don’t cut yourself.