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What is bitter melon? You many have seen this fruit if you live in an area with a large Asian population, or more recently at the local farmers market. Bitter melon information lists it as a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, which includes other cucurbits such as squash, watermelon, muskmelon and cucumber. Let’s learn more about how to grow bitter melon plants in your own garden.
Bitter Melon Information
Bitter melons are the fruit from an herbaceous vine, which as its name indicates is extremely bitter — too bitter to eat if allowed to ripen. Hence, the fruit of the bitter melons — and sometimes the tender leafy shoots — is harvested while young and then stuffed, pickled or sliced into a variety of menu items.
Also known as bitter gourd or balsam pear, bitter melons are harvested prior to seed hardening and are of a uniform pale green with a warty appearance. Fruit from the bitter melon vine can be harvested anytime during the growth period but generally when full sized, still green and about two weeks after anthesis, or the period of time between the opening of blooms and formation of fruit. Bitter melon begins to bloom between four to six weeks after sowing.
Bitter melons are indigenous to Asia with southern China and eastern India the most likely centers for domestication. Today, bitter melons are as likely to be cultivated throughout the world for their immature fruit. None of this completely answers the question, “What is bitter melon” so here is some additional bitter melon information.
The bitterness from this cucurbit stems from the alkaloid momordicine found in growing bitter melons and not to cucurbitacins, which are found in other Cucurbitaceae members. The darker the variety of bitter melon, the more bitter and intense the flavor of the fruit whether being used in culinary dishes or for its various purported medicinal properties such as a hypoglycemic and stimulant for digestion.
The interior of the fruit is a spongy, white pulp peppered with seeds. When bitter melon is sliced, it has hollow areas surrounded by a thin layer of flesh with a central seed cavity. When used for cooking, the pulp is sliced and either parboiled or soaked in salted water to lessen the overly bitter flavor. The resulting texture is watery and crunchy, akin to cucumber. As the flesh of the bitter melon ripens, it turns orange, mushy and splits into sections which curl back exposing seeded bright red pulp.
How to Grow Bitter Melons
Bitter melons are most suited to tropical to subtropical temperatures and thrive in a variety of soils. This rapidly growing vine requires trellising and is usually grown upon a support for climbing vines that is at least 6 feet (1.8 m.) high and 4-6 feet (1.2-1.8 m.) apart.
Bitter melon plant care dictates planting when there is no danger of frost and temperatures have warmed. Grown as an annual crop, seeds can be obtained from a number of suppliers and direct sown in almost any soil type, although growing bitter melons do best in deep, well-draining, sandy or silt loam.
Bitter Melon Plant Care
Bitter melon is susceptible to most of the same diseases and insect attacks that plague squash and cucumbers. Mosaic virus and powdery mildew afflict bitter melons and it may be subject to fruit flies, so much so that commercial producers will often cover the developing fruit with paper bags.
Bitter melon should be stored between 53-55 degrees F. (11-12 C.) at a fairly high humidity with a shelf life of two to three weeks. Keep the bitter melon fruit away from other ripening fruits to avoid hastening the ripening process.
Bitter Melon (Momordica charantia)
Bitter gourd, bitter squash, balsam pear, goya, karela
Annual (Perennial in tropical climates)
Bitter melon grows best in USDA zones 9 to 11. The vines of this plant can reach a length of 16 feet. It grows best in full sunlight and in sandy or loamy soil that is well-drained. The pH level of the soil should range from 5.5 to 6.7. If the soil is lacking nutrients, compost needs to be added to make the plant fertile. Bitter melon is known as a fruit but is often used as a vegetable. The fruit is green in the beginning, with a white pith. As it ripens, the outer layer becomes extremely bitter while the pith becomes sweet and red (1). The two varieties of bitter melon are the Indian bitter melon and the Chinese bitter melon. The Indian variety has sharp ridges and warty. The Chinese variety has smooth ridges and is less bitter (2). The fruit is prone to rotting when it comes in contact with moist soil, so its vines should be trellised (1).
Bitter melon seeds should be planted ¾ inch deep and spaced 20 inches apart. A trellis, bamboo poles, or wooden stakes should be inserted in the soil close to where the seeds are planted, allowing the vines to climb up. Once the plants have grown 6 leaves, fertilizer should be added to the soil every 2 weeks. It is necessary to keep the soil moist for a depth of at least 20 inches in order to encourage the growth of healthy fruits. When the vines are not grown on a trellis, the fruits are prone to rotting, so a layer of mulch or straw should be added under the vines. Bitter melon fruits are at risk from the mosaic virus, powdery mildew, and being attacked by insects such as the fruit flies. In order to protect the fruits, it is common to wrap them in newspapers or paper bags with an opening at the bottom. Bitter melons should be harvested regularly to encourage the growth of new fruits (3).
Medicinal/Culinary uses of Curry Plant:
Bitter melon has various medicinal properties. It is antimicrobial, antiviral, and can treat ulcers. It contains a chemical that acts similarly to insulin and can help lower blood sugar levels. A decoction of the root can treat dysentery, rheumatism, and gout. As an antioxidant, the fruit has the ability to lower bad cholesterol levels, which can reduce the risk of getting heart disease. However, consuming too much bitter melons can reduce sperm production in men and may lead to infertility. The antiviral components that have been extracted from the fruit have led to the treatment of HIV (4). They have been used to treat stomach and intestinal problems such as colitis, constipation, and intestinal worms. Bitter melons have also been used to treat psoriasis and liver diseases (5). Bitter melon dishes consist of the fruits being stuffed with pork or shrimp. They have been fried, pickled, or added to soups. In order to reduce the bitterness, bitter melons can be parboiled or soaked in salt water before cooking. The fruits, flowers, and young shoots are all edible (4).
Significance to Cultural Communities
Bitter melon is native to India. It is used in folk medicine to treat Type 2 diabetes in China (1). It is a staple vegetable in Japanese gardens because of its ability to grow in the harsh summer heat, and it is popularly used in Japanese cuisines (3). The indigenous groups of the Amazon add bitter melons to bean dishes and soups. They also brew a tea from the leaves to treat diabetes, measles, hepatitis, fevers, and to stimulate menstruation. A paste made from the plant can be applied to wounds, sores, and infections. Bitter melon is also used in folk medicine in Brazil. It is used as contraception and can induce abortions. Brazilians also treat the fruit as an aphrodisiac while using it to treat rashes, eczema, leprosy, and other skin ailments. Bitter melon is used to treat diabetes and dysentery in Mexico, where the root is also considered an aphrodisiac. In Peru, the plant’s leaves are to cure malaria and treat inflammation. In Nicaragua, bitter melon is used to treat stomach pains, coughs, headaches, hypertension, and help with the childbirth process (6).
Growing Bitter Melon Plants
A bitter melon is consumed in very limited quantities as it is thoroughly disliked by many, especially children. However, it has numerous health benefits. The following article gives you a gist about how to grow this vegetable.
A bitter melon is consumed in very limited quantities as it is thoroughly disliked by many, especially children. However, it has numerous health benefits. The following article gives you a gist about how to grow this vegetable.
A bitter melon is found in many nations across Asia. It is also a native to many other nations, which are situated in the tropical belt of the world. Usually, it is often found in the wild, but many farmers cultivate it too.
The intense bitterness of this vegetable gives it the name ‘bitter melon’. Some of the other names that are commonly used are balsam pear, bitter gourd, and Ku Gua. Its scientific or botanical name is Momordica charantia. This plant is a creeper, and looks very much like a cucumber vine. Its vine is characterized by a curly growth, tendrils, and brilliant flowers that are yellow in color. The bitter gourd itself is a very odd-looking vegetable. It has an oblong shape, and is greenish in color. A very peculiar feature of this fruit is the external skin that is extremely rough and knobbly. This veggie is used to make curry in India. In some of the Indian recipes it is also fried or boiled. Young children especially dislike recipes using this vegetable due to its bitterness.
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The process of planting and growing bitter melons is pretty straightforward. It does not require a lot of care as it is adapted to the wild. The following are some of the steps for growing this plant.
- Step 1: The seeds are now available in most of the non-tropical countries. You will need to checkout the nearest nursery or botanical garden in your locality. Another way of acquiring the seeds is by ordering them through the Internet.
- Step 2: The next step is to germinate the seeds. To do that, keep them in water for a time span of about 48 hours. After that the seeds start to swell up. Take off the outer covering of the seed. Be careful while taking it off, and do not damage the seed inside.
- Step 3: Make a small hole in moist soil that is about ¾ inch deep. It is very important to keep the soil moist, till the green shoot of the plant pops out of the ground. This shoot is botanically known as the cotyledon. It takes about a week for it to come on the surface of the soil.
- Step 4: The bitter gourd plant has to be transplanted after about two leaves have appeared on its shoot. The place for transplantation has to be dry and also sunny, as this plant is a victim of fungal diseases. Insert a six feet tall pole in the ground that acts like a support for the creeper. Transplant the bitter melon creeper on a sunny day, when the temperature is about 60°F. It is also very important that the roots and the soil around them are not disturbed while the creeper is being transplanted.
- Step 5: To reap better melons, water the creeper every day, preferably in the mornings. If possible, also place some hay or grass around the base of the creeper, to keep the soil damp. You can also tie the creeper with a delicate cotton or woolen thread to the pole.
- Step 6: In tropical or warm conditions, it appears on the creeper after a time span of about 80 days from the day of transplanting.
Remember, not to be very eager and let the plant take its time to grow out completely.
How to Grow Bitter Melon
Bitter melon is a favorite in Asian and Southeast Asian cooking. It can be stuffed with pork or shrimp and steamed or pickled or curried and served with meat or in soup.
Bitter melons are—as their name suggests–a bitter and mouth-puckering acquired taste—something like the acquired taste of a grapefruit or very dark chocolate.
The bitter melon is a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, which includes squash, watermelon, muskmelon, and cucumbers. Bitter melon can be grown much like cucumbers or cantaloupes but they are a subtropical plant and require at least three to four months of warm to hot and humid weather to mature.
Description: Bitter melon is a vining plant. It has deeply lobed leaves and grows in a fashion similar to squash, cucumbers, and watermelon producing vines 13 to 16 feet long if left unpruned. Fruits are oblong and either smooth or warty, usually about 8 inches (20 cm) long but fruits can vary in length between 2 and 10 inches (5-25 cm) long. The fruit shifts in color from green to yellow to orange as it ripens and over-ripens. The flesh has a watery, crunchy texture, similar to a cucumber.
Yield: Each plant will produce 10 to 12 fruits and perhaps a few more.
Planting time: Bitter melons are a warm-season crop and are best suited for growing in tropical and subtropical heat and humidity. Grow bitter melons where daytime temperatures average between 75 and 80°F (24-31°C). Plant bitter melons in late spring or early summer. Sow seed outdoors or set out transplants no sooner than two to three weeks after all danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed to at least 60 to 65°F (15-18°C).
Site: Bitter melons grow best in hot and humid climates. Choose a warm, sunny location—at least 6 hours each day–to plant. Plant bitter melons in compost-rich, well-drained soil with a pH ranging from 5.5 to 6.7. Prepare growing beds in advance of planting by adding aged compost and aged manure. Bitter melons can tolerate less desirable sandy- or siltly-loam soil but good drainage is essential.
Planting and spacing: Sow seeds in holes about half-inch deep (1.25 cm) and spaced 12 inches (30 cm) apart. Sow two seeds in each hole. Seeds germinate in 8 to 10 days, though low and high temperatures and soil too dry or too wet can slow germination. Vigorous plants trained on a trellis or fence can be spaced 9 to 10 feet (2.7-3 meters) apart. Plants allowed to sprawl on the ground should be grown on straw or plastic mulch to prevent fruits from resting on moist soil where they might rot.
Trellising can reduce diseases and make harvesting easier. Place a trellis 6 feet (1.8 meters) high and wide or slightly more next to each plant. When the vine grows to the top of its trellis, prune or pinch away all lateral branches from the soil up to the 10th node. This will stimulate the upper branches to grow and produce a higher yield. Prune laterals from 2 to 3 feet long (.6-.9 meters) and prune away the growing tip when it reaches the top of the trellis. As a result, the plant will produce a greater number of flowers and fruit sooner.
Fruit grown from a trellis will grow longer and straighter than those grown on the ground.
Water and feeding: Keep bitter melon planting beds evenly moist regular water is essential for fruit development and growth. Aged compost will feed melon plants. You can also add a slow release organic fertilizer such as 5-10-10 around plants early in the season. Side-dress plants with aged compost during the growing season to add nutrients and to help retain moisture in the soil. To give plants a boost water with compost or comfrey tea every third week during the growing season.
Companion Plants: Beans, corn, peas, pumpkins, and squash. Do not grow bitter melons with potatoes and herbs.
Care: Trellised vines produce hanging fruit, which grows long and straight. Vines allowed to sprawl on the ground should be mulched with straw or plastic to keep fruit from resting on the soil.
The growing tips of trellised vines should be pruned or pinched when they reach the top of the support, as should long lower lateral branches. This will concentrate the plant’s energy and result in more flowers and fruit. Prune when the first female flowers appear female flowers follow male flowers.
Pollination: Vines commonly begin flowering about 5 to 6 weeks after planting. Male flowers open first, followed in a week or so by female blossoms. Both flowers are yellow. Female flowers have a swelling (the ovary) at the base of the bloom resembling a tiny melon. Bees and pollinating insects visit both blooms, transferring pollen from male to female flowers. Usually male blooms live only one day they open in the morning and fall from the plant in the evening. Flower drop is not uncommon.
The ovary of pollinated female flowers will begin to enlarge and fruit will mature in two to four months. Mature fruits will be ready to pick about 12 weeks after planting. They will be light green and juicy with white, bitter flesh.
Hand pollination: Bitter Melons are pollinated by insects and honeybees. If there are flowers but no fruit forms and you find no bees at work in the garden, then you may rightfully suspect that pollination has not occurred. Pollination can be done by hand—this is true for cucumbers and squash as well: pick male flowers and transfer pollen by touching the center part of the male flowers against the center of the female flowers. (Female flowers have an enlarged section that looks like a little fruit between the flower and the vine stem males don’t.)
Container Growing: Bitter melon can be grown in a pot. Choose a container that can hold at least 5 gallons (19 liters) of potting soil—more is better. Make sure the container drains well.
Pests: Bitter melon can be attacked by spotted and striped cucumber beetles. Cucumber beetles can carry bacterial wilt disease which will cause vines to collapse. Infected vines don’t recover. Spray adult beetles with rotenone or a pyrethrum-based insecticide. Use all pesticides at dusk to avoid harming honey bees.
Fruit flies may also attack bitter melons they can spread fruit rot. Prevent flies from reaching the fruit by covering fruits with paper bags secured with twine or rubber bands or wrapping them with newspaper when the fruits are just an inch or two long.
Keep the garden free of weeds weeds often harbor pest insects.
Diseases: Bitter melon is susceptible to most of the same diseases that plague squash and cucumbers: fungal diseases such as powdery mildew, downy mildew, and rust and rots as well as watermelon mosaic virus and bacterial wilts. Trellising which increases air circulation around vines can help reduce fungal diseases. For non-trellised vines, use a straw or plastic mulch to keep melons from resting directly on moist soil. There is no cure for plants attacked by viruses. When possible, plant disease-resistant varieties.
Harvest: Harvest bitter melon about 12 to 16 weeks after planting and 8 to 10 days after blossom drop when the fruits are 4 to 6 inches (10-15 cm) long. The fruits will be a bit pear shaped, with light green skin and a few streaks of yellow. If fruits stay too long on the vine they will over-ripen, turn all yellow, grow too large, and become bitter. Fruits on the same vine can vary in their degrees of bitterness—melons both immature and overripe can taste very bitter.
The bitter melon has a thin layer of flesh that turns orange to bright red when ripe. The flesh surrounds a hollow interior cavity with spongy, white pulp peppered with seeds. The fruit will be watery and crunchy much like a cucumber.
Bitterness is the result of the alkaloid momordicine found in growing bitter melons the darker the color of a bitter melon the more bitter and intense the flavor of the fruit.
Once melons start to ripen, pick fruits regularly every two to three days. The more you pick, the more fruits will form.
Seed production: To save seed for next season, leave a few fruits on each vine to mature past harvest. Mature fruits will break open and release brown or white seeds. Collect the seed, sort it, wash it, and dry it on a countertop, then store it in a cool, dry spot. It will remain viable for 2 to 3 years.
Varieties: Bitter melons native to India have a narrow surface with pointed ends and are covered with triangular “teeth” and ridges. Bitter melons native to China are oblong with blunt ends and have a gently undulating, warty surface.
Chinese varieties include Large Top, Hong Kong Green, China Pearl, Southern Money Maker, and Hybrid White Pearl.
Indian varieties include India Long Green, India Long White, Hybrid India Green Queen, and Hybrid India Pearl.
Use: To prepare bitter melon, slice the fruit open and remove the seeds and pith. Do not peel. The fruit can be parboiled or soaked in salted water to lessen bitterness however this can affect the fruits normally crunchy texture.
Bitter melon can be stuffed (often stuffed with pork or shrimp and steamed), pickled, or curried and served with meat or in soup. The fruit pairs well with other strong flavors, like garlic, Chinese black beans, chili peppers, or coconut milk.
A dietary note: bitter melon is used in traditional Chinese medicine and in alternative medicine to treat Type 2 diabetes. It is also a folk remedy for treating high blood pressure. The combination of bitter melon and drugs sometimes used to treat hyperglycemia can decrease blood sugar levels to dangerously low levels.
Bitter melon has twice the beta carotene of broccoli, twice the potassium of bananas, and twice the calcium of spinach. It also contains high amounts of fiber, phosphorous, and Vitamins C, B1, B2, and B3.
Storing and preserving: Store bitter melons in a paper or plastic bag in the refrigerator between 53-55° F. (11-12°C.). Use within 3 to 5 days of harvest. Store bitter melon fruit away from other ripening fruits to avoid hastening the ripening process.
Common name: Bitter gourd, balsam pear, karela, bitter cucumber, bitter squash, African cucumber, alligator pear, ampalaya, goya.
Botanical name: Momordica charantia
Origin: Southern China and eastern India
Bitter Gourd Varieties
Bitter gourd is widely cultivated in India, it has many varieties. Short varieties are usually grown in the summer season and long varieties of fruits during the rainy season.
01. Pusa do mausmi
This crop is best suited for the spring, summer, and rainy season. It is certified by AICRP (VC), its fruits are long, dark green and smooth, and work stripes.
02. Pusa Vishesh
Pusa Vishesh is grown in the summer season and recommended by I.A.R.I, New Delhi. Its vine is dwarf and easy to care for. Its fruits are medium in length and thick. The upper stripes are irregularly broken and fusiform. The fruit is glossy green, it takes about 55 days to mature.
VK-1-Priya’s color is white and about 35-40 cm in length. It is recommended by Vellanikkara, Kerala, that it takes about 40 days to obtain the crop. A plant produces about 50 fruits.
04. Akra Harit
Its fruit is attractive, bright green in color. The fruit is short in length, with smooth regular ribs. It is selected by IIHR, Hessarghatta and it takes about 100-110 days to get the crop.
Its fruit color is dark green tubercles. The legs are 15–20 cm in length. You can sow till the first week of June – July. It takes about 180 days to get the crop.
06. Phule Ujwala
Its fruit is also dark green in color and medium in length. Fruits are thorny. You can sow till the first week of June – July. Its approximate output is 147 q / ha and perfect for export.
07. Pride of Gujarat
Its fruit is white green and small in color. There are white dabs on the skin.
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GROWING BITTER MELON
Types of Bitter Melon / Bitter Gourd
Bitter melon comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, size varying from 2 inches to as long as 10 inches. The bitter melon Karela of India has a narrow surface with pointed ends, and covered with triangular "teeth" and ridges.
The bitter melon of China is long, oblong with blunt ends with a gently undulating, warty surface. In Australia (Sydney, Melbourne), only Chinese type bitter melons are normally available.
How to Grow White Bitter Melon
Along with cucumbers, squashes and melons, white bitter melon is a cucurbit vegetable. The elongated fruits have pebbled skins and grow up to 6 to 12 inches long. For example, hybrid White Pearl produces tender, slightly bitter fruit measuring 9 inches long and 3 inches wide, while India Long White fruits measure 12 inches long. The 6-foot vine needs a trellis to keep fruits off the ground and preserve fruit quality. Hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 10 and 11, it grows as a perennial in frost-free regions and as a warm-season annual in cooler locations.
Spread a 2-inch layer of organic compost over the surface of a planting bed in an area that receives full sun. Till the compost 6 to 8 inches into the soil to create a well-drained mixture. Test the soil and add elemental sulfur, if necessary, to lower the pH level to 5.5 to 6.7. Mound the soil into 8-inch hills spaced 4 feet apart, and add 1 tablespoon of complete, low-nitrogen fertilizer, such as 6-10-10, to each hill.
Insert 8-foot stakes 2 feet deep and 4 feet apart behind the hills and press the soil to support the stakes. Tie fishing line to a stake and run the line every 6 inches horizontally and vertically between the stakes to create netting for the vines.
Sow eight to 10 white bitter melon seeds in each hill when the soil temperature reaches 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Cover the seeds with 1 inch of soil and water slowly and thoroughly to soak the top 6 to 8 inches of soil. Spread 3 inches of straw or other organic mulch to preserve soil moisture. Provide 1 inch of water each week in the absence of rain.
Thin the seedlings to four plants per hill when the seedlings have two or three leaves. Place the white bitter melon vines on the trellis as the branches grow, and prune the vine when it reaches the top of the trellis. Trim the vine tip and branches to stimulate growth and increase yield, recommends The National Bitter Melon Council. Flowering should begin five to six weeks after planting.
Pull up weeds as they appear. Remove tiny, wingless aphids from white bitter melon plants by hand or with water from a garden hose. Aphids transmit watermelon mosaic virus, which causes raised leaf spots and malformed fruits. To minimize pests, rotate melon plants with non-cucurbit crops on a three-year schedule.
Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of 33-0-0 nitrogen fertilizer per hill after the flowers begin to bloom if your soil is light or sandy, recommends Purdue University Cooperative Extension. Water after you apply the fertilizer. White bitter melons need adequate nitrogen, which leaches from light soil. Add another application of nitrogen fertilizer in three weeks.
Pollinate the flowers by hand during the day if you do not have honeybees or other pollinators in your area. Locate the female flowers, which have a thick area between the stem and the flower. Press the faces of male and female flowers together to transfer the pollen to the female flower. Fruits should appear two or three months after planting.
Cut newspaper into pieces that will fit over the developing white bitter melon fruits to protect the fruits from the sun and pests. Fold the pieces of paper over the tops of the fruits and tape the paper sleeve edges together. Leave the sleeves open at the bottom of the fruits.
Harvest white bitter melons eight to 10 days after the blossoms drop, when fruits measure 6 to 12 inches long, depending on the variety. Pick the fruits every two or three days to promote new fruit growth and prevent the fruits from over-ripening. Do not eat soft, over-ripe fruits, which can be toxic to humans and animals.
- Fine Gardening: Momordica Charantia
- The National Bitter Melon Council: Diversity
- Specialty and Minor Crops Handbook University of California Davis
- Purdue University Cooperative Extension: Growing Cucumbers, Melons, Pumpkins and Gourds
- Seedman: Bitter Melon Seeds
- The National Bitter Melon Council: Farm Growing Information
- University of California Integrated Pest Management Program: Cucurbits — Potyviruses
- Los Angeles Times: Growing Bitter Melon — Tricks to an Unusual Treat
Judith Evans has been writing professionally since 2009, specializing in gardening and fitness articles. An avid gardener, Evans has a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of New Hampshire, a Juris Doctor from Vermont Law School, and a personal trainer certificate from American Fitness Professionals and Associates.