By Ralph E. Mitchell
While a name like bitter melon may make you think twice about eating this fruit, this Asian crop is very popular across the world and even here in the United States. Not to be confused with its small, weedy, toxic-seeded cousin, the Balsam pear, the larger cultivated bitter melon is an exotic-looking, yet easy-to-grow plant. And, when prepared properly, the green fruit has a pleasantly bitter taste.
The bitter melon does not look like any vegetable you have seen before. Part of the cucumber family, the bitter melon is also called bitter gourd, bitter squash, and karela. There are two distinct types, Chinese and Indian. The Chinese variety grows up to twelves inches long and three inches wide, is light green in color with smooth, warty ridges. The Indian type is shorter, darker green with pointed warty ridges. The fruit is reportedly high in vitamin C and vitamin B9. The mature fruit is cut in half and the seeds are removed. The usable flesh of the bitter melon is then incorporated into different cuisine styles.
I grew a bitter melon this year called ‘Ganjyu’ (actually a Japanese variety) starting in May on a six-foot trellis of iron post uprights and vegetable vine netting. The planting was about ten-feet long and plenty of composted manure was incorporated into the soil. The somewhat musky vines complete with lobed, grape-like leaves, grew rapidly and were beginning to exceed the available support. Vines can grow to sixteen feet, so I have had to redirect their growth back on to the trellis. Rows should be spaced about six feet apart, with plants grown at three-foot intervals. Bitter melons begin to flower about four weeks after direct seed planting and require pollination from insects working both male and female flowers. The female flowers actually have a tiny baby fruit at the base of their butter-yellow flower. If pollination occurs, this tiny fruit will begin to expand and develop into the final harvestable vegetable. On average, the fruit is ready to pick about fifty days after seeding.
The wild version of the bitter melon is the Balsam pear. The genus and species are the same, it is just a different type complete with toxic seeds. The Balsam pear is in fact a Category II Invasive Plant and a very tenacious annual weed in our area. Stick to the cultivated bitter melon!
Don’t dismiss bitter melon just because of its name, just make sure you find a good recipe! For more information on all types of exotic tropical vegetables to grow, please call our Master Gardener volunteers on the Plant Lifeline on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 to 4 pm at 764-4340 for gardening help and insight into their role as an Extension volunteer. Don’t forget to visit our other County Plant Clinics in the area. Please check this link for a complete list of site locations, dates and times – https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/media/sfylifasufledu/charlotte/docs/pdf/Plant-Clinics-Schedule1.pdf. Our Eastport Environmental Demonstration Garden is always open to the public outside the gate at 25550 Harbor View Road. Master Gardener volunteers tend this garden on Tuesday mornings from 8 to 10 am and are available for questions. Ralph E. Mitchell is the Director/Horticulture Agent for the UF/IFAS Charlotte County Extension Service. He can be reached at 941-764-4344 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
L., Guodong. Wang, Q., Li, Y., Dinkins, D., Wells, B. & Cui, Y. (2019) Bitter Melon—an Asian Vegetable Expanding in Florida. The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.
Brown K. (2017) Momordica charantia UF / IFAS Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants. The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.
Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council’s 2019 List of Invasive Plant Species – http://bugwoodcloud.org/CDN/fleppc/plantlists/2019/2019_Plant_List_ABSOLUTE_FINAL.pdf.