A bit of good news was reported at the Lake Okeechobee Aquatic Plant Management Interagency Task Force meeting on May 30. According to a report from the South Florida Water Management District, thanks to the lower lake level this year, they have seen a resurgence of a native plant commonly called the Okeechobee Gourd. The scientific name is Cucurbita okeechobeensis ssp. okeechobeensis.
According to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) website, the gourd plant has grape-like foliage. Each leaf contains five to seven shallow lobes. The gourd fruits hang conspicuously from trees long after the annual vine is dead. The flowers are cream-colored or nearly white and have a 3-inch long corolla, with very small sharp lobes on the calyx. The gourds (fruits) are nearly globular, long stemmed, 3 to 3.5 inches in diameter. They are hard shelled and durable, light green with faint longitudinal lines of lighter color, and sometimes have rather definite marks of yellowish green. Fruits contain many flattened seeds with raised margins.
According to the Florida Division of Plant Industry, at one time the gourd was a common sight in the hammocks around the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee and was not known elsewhere. The gourd is found only occasionally in small areas that have not been too closely cultivated. Since there has been no mention of the edibility of this gourd, it should not be eaten, advises IFAS.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the Okeechobee gourd is a vine that was locally common in the extensive pond apple (Annona glabra) forest that once grew south of Lake Okeechobee. As early as 1930, at least 95 percent of the pond apple forests had been destroyed, and pond apple now persists as scattered trees or small stands around Lake Okeechobee and in the Everglades. The conversion of these swamps and marshes due to water-level regulation in Lake Okeechobee, have been the principal causes of the reduction in range and number of Okeechobee gourd plants, according to FWS.