What is Bignonia?

Kay Blynn

Bignonia is a common name for a family of flowering vines, shrubs, and trees known formally as Bignoniaceae. Species of the Bignoniaceae also include the Catalpa and Jacaranda family. Bignonia plants are native to warm areas of North and South America, Asia, and the Caribbean. There are over 650 different species in the Bignonia family, most of which are prized as ornamental garden plants because of their attractive flowers. Some varieties of Bignonia also produce gourds.

Man mowing the grass
Man mowing the grass

Most Bignonia shrubs have woody stems and climb using tendrils. A tendril is a specialized stem that twines around whatever surface is available. The tendrils serve the purpose of securing the plant to a surface. Leaf shape can vary by species, but in general, the Bignonia produce flowers that are elongated and the petals curl backward at the flower opening, having the shape of a trumpet. The flowers come in a wide variety of colors, including white, yellow, purple, orange, and red.

In the southeastern United States, the most common variety of the Bignonia is the trumpet creeper, also known as the trumpet vine or cross vine. The trumpet shaped flowers on this plant are typically orange or red. The trumpet vine grows well in poor soil, in full or partial sun, and will climb anything. Walls, fences, and trellises will quickly become covered by a trumpet or cross vine.

An important member of the Bignonia family is the Calabash tree, Crescentia cujete. Native to South America, the Calabash tree is also known as the krabasi or kaebas. It grows to about 30 feet (about 10 m) and produces large, round fruit. The fruit produced by the Calabash tree has a hard exterior shell and is not edible. The non-edible seeds and pulp are removed from the calabash and dried, producing gourds. Gourds made from the Calabash tree are referred to as calabashes.

The Calabash was the first plant known to be cultivated for its gourds rather than for the purposes of food. In the past, the gourds have been used as spoons, bowls, ladles, and cups. Gourds were also used to store liquid or dry goods, such as grain.

Today, calabash gourds are used to make decorative items for the home. They are also used to make maracas, the well-known percussion instrument. To make maracas, the calabash gourds are typically attached to handles and filled with seeds. Musicians usually use two maracas at a time; when shaken, the maracas make a rattling noise.

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