A blog reader just brought bitter melon to my attention. I had never heard of it before, so we’re going to learn about it today. [Thank you, Jose Jaison!]
Bitter melon is a type of gourd. It goes by several other names: balsam-pear, bitter apple, bitter cucumber, bitter squash, and wild cucumber are just a few of those names. But why would you want to eat something bitter? It ends up there’s far more to bitter melon than the pucker factor.
Traditionally, bitter melon has been used as an herbal medicine for a variety of ailments, but more research is needed. Because these plants do contain active ingredients, they are not recommended for women who are pregnant. But don’t be scared off. These gourds are edible.
Don’t get me wrong. Bitter melons are bitter. Apparently, that first bite can be a bit of a shock. But then, as with many hot pepper aficionados attest, the flavor becomes an addiction that is craved. You can reduce some of that bitterness by soaking the fruit in water before eating or cooking. But you may decide that isn’t necessary, once you’ve had your first taste.
The bitter melon plant
Bitter melons (Momordica charantia) are tropical and subtropical vining plants that come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and bitterness levels. They grow best in USDA Hardiness Zone 9–11 but can be grown in cooler areas if a warm, sunny spot is available and protection is provided in winter.
Bitter melon’s herbaceous vines grow up to 16’ long during their three- to four-month growing season. Leaves may be 2-5” across, deeply lobed, alternate, and simple. As with other cucurbits, large yellow and white male and female flowers can occur on each plant.
Bitter melon fruit is shaped like a big cucumber and covered with warty bumps. Unlike cucumber, the interior has very little flesh and lots of big, flat seeds and pith. The flesh is usually eaten while green or as it begins turning yellow. The texture of the skin and flesh is described as being similar to bell pepper and chayote, as well as cucumber. The edible pith becomes quite sweet and, in some varieties, turns bright red. It is a common ingredient in many Southeast Asian salads. Young shoots and leaves are also eaten as greens. Most growers harvest their bitter melons when the fruit is 4–6” long. [Note, the younger the melon, the more bitter it will be.] If your bitter melon goes soft and starts peeling itself like a banana, you know it’s fully ripe (and probably past the good eating stage).
How to grow bitter melon
Bitter melon seeds should be planted ½” deep in loose, nutrient-rich soil, in a location that receives full to partial sun. Plants should be spaced 12” apart. Bitter melons thrive in hot, humid regions, so you will need to keep the soil moist. Top dress around the plants with aged compost or feed with a slow-release organic 5-10-10 fertilizer for the best results.
Bitter melons grow best in soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6.7. These plants use tendrils to climb, so trellising or stock panels can help you make better use of your garden real estate. This also helps prevent belly rot and other fungal diseases from affecting your bitter melon crop. As plants reach the top of the trellis, pinch back the tips to encourage lateral growth lower down the stem. If your bitter melons end up on the ground, provide a protective layer of straw between them and the soil.
You can also grow bitter melon in 5-gallon containers. Bitter melon are said to be best intercropped with beans, corn, and other cucurbits. It is not recommended grown around potatoes or herbs, though I couldn't find out why.
Bitter melon problems
Bitter melons are susceptible to all the normal cucurbit pests and diseases. Downy mildews, powdery mildew, rots, rusts, and watermelon mosaic virus are the most common diseases of bitter melon. If possible, use disease-resistant varieties. Spotted and striped cucumber beetles, which can carry bacterial wilt disease, can become problematic, along with fruit flies.
Bitter melon’s bright yellow flowers normally attract plenty of pollinators. If those garden helpers are in short supply, you can always hand-pollinate. And leave one or two fruits on the vine at the end of the season for next year’s seeds.
Jose told me that one of his favorite bitter gourd dishes is called ‘Bitter gourd thoran’. He also told me that all ‘thoran’ contains grated coconut. Bitter gourd thoran is a slow-cooked stir fry made with chopped bitter gourd, shallots, garlic, and green chili) usually served with rice. I may have to give that recipe a try.
Thanks again, Jose!
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