While perusing Kelly Kindscher’s Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie last year, one plant especially stood out: Cucurbita foetidissima or Buffalo Gourd, Fetid Wild Pumpkin, Stinking Gourd etc. Not only did the Buffalo Gourd have an extravagant number of medicinal uses, but mystique, reverence, and fear surrounded it.
A number of tribes employed the Buffalo Gourd’s medicinal uses- the Osage, Apache, Dakota, and Cahuilla among many others. However, in 1919, ethnobotanist, Melvin Gilmore relayed the caution one must take in harvesting the root. Not only must one have had the proper authority to do so, but damaging the root meant risking one’s own health or the health of his family. Additionally, the mature fruit of this plant is poisonous, and the plant itself can absorb toxic substances.
Despite the risks, the plant was still harvested for its many medicinal benefits. For example, Dan Moerman has documented that it was used for treating open sores, as a laxative, and to expel worms from horses. Several tribes, including the Pawnee and the Ponca used Buffalo Gourd as a panacea. Another interesting fact: the central taproot can weigh up to 160 pounds. Finally, the seeds were eaten and the fruit used as a shampoo by the Cahuilla.
While Swink and Wilhelm write that Cucurbita foetidissima is not native to the area, it has been introduced from the South and West and currently resides in a number of counties in Illinois and Wisconsin, including Cook County.