How To Grow Bitter Melon
Bitter melon is the odd name for the plant properly known as “momordica charantia”. Also called bitter squash, the plant has uniquely-shaped leaves that produces a visible fruit. The fruit itself changes in color as the plant ripens throughout the growing season. The flavor of the bitter melon plant is quite different than that found in other squash-family vegetables. The taste is commonly compared to a rare grapefruit or extremely bitter, uncooked chocolate. As an acquired-taste, bitter melon is popular in Asian cooking, but is less common in Western-style cuisine.
Bitter melon was though to originate from the south part of Asia with the southern-half of China being the most popular harvesting locale. The strange taste of bitter melon makes it an integral component of many Chinese dishes. The bitter melon fruit itself is also an odd shape, appearing similar to a disfigured cucumber or zucchini. In ancient times, the ugliest bitter melon fruits, with the highest bitter content, were used as a home-brew cure for malaria.
Despite its odd flavor, the fruit of bitter melon is quite high in nutritional content. Laboratory tests have shown harvested bitter melon possesses high quantities of iron, beta carotene, potassium, calcium, fiber, phosphorous, and B and C vitamins. As with other vegetables the nutritional composition of bitter melon degrades quickly after harvesting so the plant should be eaten or frozen right away.
Similarly to other members of the squash family, bitter melon grows in long vine-shaped structures that occupy space throughout the ground. Most plants require at least a half day of full sun. Once a plant grows long enough to take up both full sun and partial shade locations, the plant itself will grow towards the ideal amount of sunlight for its particular growing region.
The bitter melon plant requires soil that has very good drainage as moist or boggy conditions will rot both the fruit and the plant vine. The plant can tolerate a wide-range of pH soil conditions so drainage and sunlight are the most important considerations. As with all vegetables, an organic compost mix with no harsh chemicals is the ideal fertilizer. The amount and composition of fertilizer can be changed to accommodate different plant needs over the growing season.
Given the vine structure of bitter melon, a trellis is a great way to organize the plant. Experienced gardeners can even create tiered trellis structures to keep the plant straight and tall. Keeping the plant off the soil will also limit infestation by bugs and prevent rot from wet conditions. An organic mulch material is also useful for keeping the vines and fruit off of the ground.
Warm climates with plenty of sunlight and good water will cause a flourishing bitter melon plant. The vine structures explode in the proper conditions, so be prepared ahead of the summer growing season. If fruits are allowed to lean onto the soil they will quickly rot from wet earth, insects, and disease. Proper spacing and a well-designed system of growth can ensure a healthy bitter melon plant year round.
If you plan to use a trellis system to grow bitter melon then be sure to organize your harvesting and pruning accordingly. You want to prune the plant in such a way that the strongest portion of the vine near the ground is kept intact so that it can support growth at higher levels. The time to harvest and prune is fully dependent upon your specific growth zone as well as sunlight and water qualities.
A slightly moist, but not soggy soil is critical for the best bitter melon. The vine will grow more consistently if the level of moisture in the soil remain consistent from day to day rather than having periods of drought and deluge. Any type of safe fertilizer helps with plant growth so long as it is appropriately spread into the ground prior to planting. Fertilizing plants as they are growing is trickier as it can depend on the nutritional composition of the soil.
In the best case, you will see flowers growing directly off of the vine a few months after planting seeds. Bitter melon plants have both male and female flowers and require equal balance to continue germination. The female flowers look different with a large bulge in the base of the plant resembling a melon. The male flowers actually bloom approximately one week before the female flowers allowing even novice growers to identify the sex of each flower on the vine. Bee pollination is important to allow for transfer of pollen from the male flowers to the female flowers. If adequate temperatures and growing conditions do not allow bees to pollinate the plant then the bitter melon crop will be slowly extinguished after the growing season.
Bitter melon is susceptible to a number of different threats. A trellis system can eliminate most of the direct threats to the plant and is the safest method of growing. For bitter melon not grown on a trellis, be sure to have organic mulch to separate the fruit from the soil. Ripe fruit is a prime target for all varieties of insects. Since flying insects can attack the fruit on a trellis, conscientious gardeners may want to protect individual fruit with paper or other light material during growth.
Many of the same diseases and bug that kill other members of the squash family also wreak havoc on bitter melon. The majority of these can be avoided with a good trellis and even basic use of mulch can eliminate most of the rest. Any type of pesticide or other method of killing pests will likely harm the plant or degrade the quality of the fruit. For beetles and other ground insects, picking off the pests one-at-a-time and drowning them is actually the best strategy. Insecticides are dangerous when used with a vegetable that you feed to your family and other methods of spraying are similarly harmful.
Even experienced growers may have difficulty identifying the best time to harvest bitter melon. The best way to tell when the fruit is ready for harvest is by looking at the color of the brightest fruit. Ideal bitter melon fruits are just turning from green to yellow. Fruits that are fully yellow are too ripe and will decay quickly off the vine. Green fruits are not yet ripe enough and will have a flavor that is far too bitter for even fans of the taste. With experience you may also be able to time harvest based on the size of the biggest fruits. In combination with color scheme, a fruit that is approximately five inches long is likely ready for harvest.
The same bitter melon plant can actually produce fruit with different flavors. By changing the harvest time, a home gardener can actually select the best plants for family preference. Younger, more green plants will be more bitter while older, more yellow plants will be more mild. Once the harvest begins, the more often you pick fruits the more likely you will have additional fruits during the season.
Try to eat or freeze bitter melon within a few days of harvest. Once the fruit begins to degrade it will quickly mold and turn bad. The most common uses for bitter melon are stir-frying with some type of meat or boiling for use in a soup. Larger bitter melons can also be stuffed with meat or seafood and steamed over medium heat before being served over a bed or rice.
Bitter melon has traditional uses as a medicinal vegetable and is very common in traditional Chinese medicine. The combination of a unique flavor and medicinal properties make it quite popular among home gardeners of south-east Asian ancestry. Before using the fruit in either medicine or in cooking, make sure to remove all seeds. Once the ripe flesh is exposed the plant is ready for you to cook or use in medicine.