Momordica charantia (aka bitter melon or bitter gourd) is a popular vegetable in many Asian countries and has an adamant place in Asian cuisine. Bitter melon’s popularity doesn’t stop at being a staple food crop, it’s also used as a medicinal treatment for a wide array of illnesses, and it often consumed as a tea. It’s a member of the Cucurbitaceae family along with cucumbers, and the resemblance is clear. The problem most people have with bitter melons is their bitterness, it is definitely an acquired taste. For culinary chefs the bitterness can be used as a compliment in their dishes, making the bitter melon very useful in cooking.
Growing this plant out of it’s desired sub-tropical/tropical climate is very easy, but only as an annual. When growing bitter melon think of it as if you were growing a cucumber, start after the last frost of winter and expect them to grow until it gets cold again in fall. It prefers high humidity but they can still be grown in low humidity. You will find that this plant is a fast grower, but is even faster at blooming. I have noticed flowers on bittermelon vines that are only 6 inches long! As far as aesthetics go, it’s not a terribly pretty plant and it has a very bitter smell. Just touching the leaves of this plant will make your hands smell with a spicy bitterness.
The varieties of bitter melons:
There are many different types of bitter melons with different textures, tastes, and sizes. The Indian bitter melon (below) is generally smaller and very bumpy. Chinese bitter melons (Top of page) are long and smooth and are a lighter shade of green. There are bitter melon hybrids that are white and some that are extremely long, some even have different leaf structures.
Seeding Bitter melon:
Collect hard seeds from the bitter melon, the soft white seeds aren’t viable. You will notice red flesh surrounding each seed, if the flesh is white that means the seed probably isn’t viable. Take the seed out of the pocket of flesh before planting. Expect about 15-30 seeds per bittermelon depending on their size and variety. You can either let them dry out or plant them immediately. Plant them about ¼ inch in a well draining soil and water daily. Germination period is around 7-14 days and time until harvest can be sooner than 60 days!
Growing conditions for Bitter melon:
I have noticed that these vines are mildly drought tolerant and do well even in excessively hot temperatures. Frost is deadly to these plants thus making it an annual, although in tropical locations it can survive as a perennial. Bitter melon vines can tolerate slightly acidic and slightly alkaline soils making them fairly versatile. A trellis should be provided if you want to keep this plant from spreading and taking over other plants. This way the bitter melon vine can attach its tendrils to the trellis as opposed to neighboring plants. Give this plant a lot of space, it grows fast and is ready to conquer a greenhouse or garden.
Pollination and harvest of bitter melons:
The bitter melon plant has both female and male flowers which means that a pollinator must carry the pollen from the male flower to the female to complete fertilization. The most common pollinators are bees and other flying insects, although if you don’t have any natural pollinators or are growing in a greenhouse it is easiest to hand pollinate them. You can do this by using a small paintbrush and collecting pollen from a male flower and applying it to the female flowers. Typically the vines have far more male flowers than female flowers which means that most flowers will not turn into fruits. You can tell the difference between male and female flowers by the flower stem. That of the male will be long and thin while the female’s flower stem will have a small unfertilized bitter melon attached to it. A pollinated female flower can be seen in the picture below.
How to cook bitter melon:
There are a wide variety of techniques when cooking bitter melon but most common are using them in stirfries and soups. Many people like to fry or pickle the bitter melons to add flavor and reduce bitterness. If used in a stir fry or soup you should cut the bitter melon in slices or in sections, but make sure no mature seeds are included. If you are using immature bitter melons you will notice that the seeds are small and soft making them edible. Bitter melons are commonly deep fried and often breaded too, making a nice snack food. The bitter melon itself is crispy and very watery with a spongy flesh on the inside with the seeds.
Bitter melon products are widely available and quite popular in many countries. You can find bitter melon as a flavoring in candies, bitter melon tea which claims to carry medicinal benefits, as well as bitter melon soda!