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Momordica charantia or The Bitter Gourd

Growing up in Florida I always saw these neat little plants growing along fences. They had bright orange fruits and no one seemed to know what they were. My class mates and I dubbed them Kissy Bees and we would play with them by throwing them at the fence and watching the seeds explode. Finding the first orange one of the season was like finding treasure. But we were very smart kids and would not put them in our mouths. We didn't know what they were and since no one else did we all just assumed they were poisonous.

It wasn't until a few years ago that I finally found out that this plant goes by several names and is a member of the Cucurbit family. It is called the Bitter Gourd, Bitter Melon and Wild Balsam Apple. The scientific name is Momordica charantia.

M. charantia is an anual vine that is native to the tropics around the world. Here is what the ripe fruit looks like.

The orange fruit IS poisonous and should not be eaten, but I was surprised to find out that the immature green fruit is edible if cooked and is a common vegitable in Asian and Indian food. I have heard it is extremely bitter hence the common name. The seeds of the ripe fruit are covered in a red aril or fleshy seed cover. This part is sweet and can be sucked, but Do NOT EAT THE SEEDS They Are Poisonous.

The domestic Asian variety is much longer than the wild one. I'm used the the short rounded wild ones so when I saw pictures of the ones grown on trellises I was surprised how different they were. The wild ones have fleshy "thorns" while some of the domestic varietys are warty and bumpy. Very strange.

In the states M. charantia is found from Connecticut to Florida. On West to Texas and Puerto Rico and Hawaii.

This is a video of the cultivated variety growing on a Farm in India. These look so different to the wild ones in North America. But it's so neat to see them hanging like that.

If I find these in my yard I am very happy. To me they make very nice decorative vines for the fence or trellis.


( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 17th, 2009 09:24 pm (UTC)
Thank you, for all of this. I've seen bitter gourds for sale in Asian grocery stores, but I've never seen the ripe ones before. I may have to grow some myself next season, when the weather allows.

By the way, and you probably don't know the answer to this, where did you come across the reference to the seeds being poisonous? I'm asking because I was told the same thing about watermelon seeds as a kid, and now I've discovered how tasty they are when they're roasted. I've seen roasted bitter melon seeds in Asian markets, too, so I just want to make sure that I'm not doing something really stupid by presuming that one common name applies to two roughly similar plants.
Aug. 17th, 2009 09:40 pm (UTC)
Oh you're welcome. I'm glad you enjoyed my little post. The seeds must be from the same green immature seeds because the whole thing is safe to eat at that stage. They can be cut into slices like pickles. But the red seeds of the mature orange fruit are to be avoided because they can really make you sick. I have heard this before many times and finally had it confirmed on this website.

Quote: The ripe seeds inside the arils and orange flesh of the gourd are toxic and can make one violently lose fluids from both ends, and induce abortions.

Stick with the green ones in the stores. Those are safe. If you want to plant them let them sit on a shelf until they turn orange. The fruit will then open in three parts like the pictures above and you can plant the red seeds.
Aug. 17th, 2009 09:38 pm (UTC)
Those are pretty cool. I probably would've picked and played with those as a kid, too.
Aug. 17th, 2009 09:44 pm (UTC)
They're definitely fun to play with.
Aug. 18th, 2009 01:38 pm (UTC)
In Puerto Rico we call them "condiamor". One of the remedies for lice was to take the vine with leaves and all and boil them and then use it as a rinse after washing your head. I have to say it worked many, many times.
Aug. 18th, 2009 01:47 pm (UTC)
Oh wow thanks for sharing that! I love hearing uses for this cute plant I always thought of as a toy that no one else loved. That's a very interesting use too. And now I know what they are called in Spanish. This is embarassing but I forgot how to say gourd again. I've made a notepad file now and will keep it logged.
Aug. 18th, 2009 02:15 pm (UTC)
Oh I forgot to mention that they are poisonous. How I know? Well we were little we didnt know better and we fed the seeds to my cousin's rabbit. Next thing we knew the poor bunny was dead.
Aug. 18th, 2009 02:59 pm (UTC)
Oh dear. Sorry to hear that.
Aug. 19th, 2009 08:59 am (UTC)
The charantia or bitter gourd or ampalaya in the Phil. is a popular food supplement that controls the blood sugar and hence taken by diabetics here.
Aug. 19th, 2009 02:38 pm (UTC)
Yes, I hear it has many medicinal properties. That's great but people that are hypoglycimic it's bad because it has the opposite effect. So I probably couldn't eat them. Too bad.
Aug. 19th, 2009 11:24 pm (UTC)
oh wow, i remember these from my florida childhood as well! we use to break them too, the bright red of the insides is always a little shocking.
Aug. 20th, 2009 12:30 am (UTC)
I remember those! Cool!
Jan. 16th, 2010 05:19 pm (UTC)
The leaves can be used to alleviate rashes. My grandmothers used to crush them and make a salve of sorts to rub on the irritated area. The leaves can also be dried and made into a tea that is supposed to bring down blood sugar levels, benefitting diabetics.

I've never heard of the seeds being poisonous. Good to know. Now to find one of these in my backyard so I don't have to drive far to get them!
Jan. 18th, 2012 02:59 am (UTC)
Thank you sooo much! I've lived in Florida literally my whole life and had never seen one of these until last week (I'm 23 now). I couldn't figure out what it was until I read your post. Thank god I was smart enough to not try eating it either.
Nik Hil
Apr. 30th, 2012 01:35 am (UTC)
bitter melon
this is called karaili in trinidad, i grew up eating this stuff, its great!...if you know how to cook it :D
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )