If the image above is the first time you’ve set eyes upon a bitter melon, then you’re probably as intrigued as I was when I first discovered this weird, alien-looking thing hanging from a tree in my neighbourhood.
It was late summer 2020 when the site of a UGO (unidentified growing object) stopped me in my tracks. It soon transpired one of our neighbours had planted the seeds in a random spot around 100 metres away from her house, most likely with the intention of amusing the occasional passerby. Once I’d identified the plant’s owner, I asked permission to gather a few seeds for this year’s spring sowing. I was again taken aback when, a few days later, I returned to see the green fruit had transformed from green to bright orange, and had burst open revealing its guts, a bounty of red rubies, reminiscent of large pomegranate seeds.
The bitter melon, 'kudret nar' in Turkish, 'momordica charantia' in latin, is a member of the gourd family. I’d already had moderately-successful attempts at growing bottle gourds (the kind that are made into carved and decorated lamps in many Mediterranean and African countries) and loofah (think long bathroom sponges), so I decided, if not only for decorative purposes, I’d have a bash at growing bitter melons.
Initially I had no idea what the true purpose of bitter melons were, though I soon realised I had eaten them before, in India, where they are named ‘bitter gourd’ or ‘karala’, and are mostly found in a longer shape.
I’ve attempted to grow bitter melon in a few spots this year; along a wall with my five loofah vines, beneath a tree, and in the corner of my veg patch where it can climb up the fencing. The latter turned out to be the most successful spot, though my bitter melon fruits have all been quite tiny up to now.
The bitter melon, a tropical and sub-tropical vine belonging to the Cucurbitaceae family, is an incredibly nutritional plant, with online research papers outlining its purported roles in controlling blood glucose levels, though caution should most definitely be exercised. There seems to be some ambiguity regarding the safety of eating bitter melon, or if the seeds are medicinal or, in fact, toxic. Online research seems to suggest that the fruit is only safe to eat when green and cooked, and that once the fruit turns orange, it becomes toxic. The seeds are claimed to be harmful too, though a diabetic neighbour occasionally eats a teaspoon of crushed seeds mixed with honey, and I’ve seen jars of crushed seeds for sale at the local market. I guess many pharmaceutical and herbal therapies utilise ingredients which are toxic unless used in small doses, and there comes a point when an ailment is detrimental enough to warrant utilising a little toxicity in the hopes that symptoms will abate... though if you’re mostly healthy, in order to play it safe, I recommend sticking to the cooked green fruit only, and not eating any part of the fruit at all during pregnancy.
Possible health benefits of consuming bitter melon:
Regulates blood sugars
Full of antioxidants
Contains iron, potassium, vitamins A and C
A quick stir fry with onion, garlic, ginger, ground coriander, ground cumin, turmeric and a splash of water, is how I’ve been eating my occasional small harvest of bitter melon. Yes, it is incredibly bitter, though bitter is good. Bitter foods aid digestion as they stimulate the growth of bacteria in the gut. I’ve recently learned that leaves of the vine are also edible, though deciding how many to risk picking while the plant is still bearing fruit, can be tricky. They also shrivel to almost nothing once cooked, so making a tea with a few leaves is perhaps a wiser idea.
If you are ready to take your consumption of bitter foods to the next level, or simply want to add a unique, conversation-starting climber to your trellis, sow a few bitter melon seeds next spring and let this weird vine brighten up your summer. It provides a colour feast on the chopping board too!