The “bitter-sweet” vine

With the popularity of specialty produce substantially on the rise, it’s not uncommon to come across fruits and vegetables – either at farmers markets or at super markets – that seem unfamiliar or at times even intriguing. Bitter melon, also known as bitter gourd, is perhaps one such vegetable; but not unknown to me since India is one of the countries where it is skillfully prepared and relished despite the fact that a cooked preparation has a strong bitter taste, hence the name.  

Setting aside the unusual culinary value, bitter melon, Momordica charantia, is produced on an annual vine which is very attractive, including the flowers and the fruit. A member of the cucumber family, the stems, along with deeply-lobed leaves, climb the available support with the help of delicate tendrils, covering a fair amount of area in just one growing season. So, vigorous is the vine that, if needed, one can form a temporary screen with it.  

Light-yellow in color and sweetly scented, separate male and female flowers are borne all over the stems over which bumblebees hover like crazy. Soon to follow are green curious-looking long, warty fruits that are pointed at both ends. Ripened fruits turn orange, split open and the segments curl outwards to expose a brilliant red pulp in which the seeds are embedded. It is quite a dramatic sight!

Since the seeds are not as readily available, I was fortunate enough to get very healthy young plants from Dr. Reza Rafie, who is the Horticulture Extension Specialist at Virginia State University. Due to lack of an appropriate location, I have planted them in a large container equipped with a trellis, in full sun. Not only have the plants taken off fast and growing in all directions without being unmanageable, we are now beginning to harvest the “fruits” for consumption.

We pick the fruits at a fairly young stage, when they are about 3-4 inches long. But for future growing need, I will let some of them ripen to collect the mature seeds. So, if some fellow gardeners would like to try this most unique vine, I will be more than happy to share the seeds from my garden.

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