Image: Jo Theera/Shutterstock.comBitter melon (Momordica charantia) is a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, which also includes cucumbers, squash, watermelon, and muskmelon. In different parts of the world, this commodity is called bitter gourd, bitter squash, balsam apple, bitter cucumber, karalla, balsam pear, and a number of other names. Ranging from 5 to 12 inches long (depending on variety), bitter melon resembles a wrinkled cucumber. It is generally picked when green, though the fruit will eventually turn yellow or orange as it ripens. Inside is a white layer of pulp with reddish-pink seeds, but the fruit is not eaten raw. A subtropical to tropical melon, it is one of the most popular vegetables in Southeast Asia. Native to China and India, the fast-growing, climbing vine crop is widely produced throughout Asia, Africa, South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. To a lesser degree, bitter melon is grown as a specialty vegetable in subtropical regions of the United States, including Florida, Hawaii, and California. While technically a fruit, bitter melon is eaten as a vegetable and incorporated into dishes to add a delightfully acidic flavor. Considered the most bitter of all fruits, it is often soaked in water to diminish its bitterness and then boiled, fried, curried, steamed, or pickled. The curcubit is commonly used in Caribbean and Asian-inspired cuisine, including stew, soup, and stir fry meals. Hailed for its medicinal value, this nutrient-rich fruit has attracted the attention of doctors and scientists across the globe. High in iron, calcium, potassium, beta carotene, folate, and Vitamin C, it is also being studied for potential treatment of infectious diseases, diabetes, skin conditions, and other ailments.
Types & Varieties There are two primary types of bitter melon: Chinese and Indian. The Chinese melon is wider and longer, usually 8 to 12 inches in length. Rounded at the ends, this variety has light green skin with smooth, wart-like bumps. The Indian variety is smaller with pointy ends and rough, dark green skin featuring sharp ridges. CULTIVATION Bitter melon is a warm weather crop that thrives in daytime temperatures between 75 and 80°F. In the tropics, the gourd can be planted year-round as long as crops are properly irrigated during drier months. The plant does best in lowland areas to altitudes of up to 3,200 feet. While typically cultivated in the field, it can also be grown in a greenhouse. The plant can be transplanted or grown from seeds, which require warm and moist conditions to germinate. Soon after germination, the plant will grow three to four leaves. Once leaves appear, the plant’s vines will sprout tendrils and start climbing. These fast-growing vines can extend to more than 15 feet long with numerous branches. For this reason, crops typically require a trellis support system after 4 to 6 feet in height. Bitter melon prefers well-drained, sandy or silty loam. If grown in wet conditions, bacterial and fungal wilt can have a negative impact on plant health and fruit growth. Rows should be generous at 5 to 6 feet apart with 3 to 5 feet between individual plants. Depending on growing region, fruit will be ready for harvest 50 to 70 days after seeding. When plants are transplanted, the fruit will grow more quickly. Bitter melon is picked by hand and requires close attention during harvest time. Because the fruit develops rapidly, it must be harvested frequently, usually every 2 to 3 days. Young fruit should be picked when firm and light green in color, preferably during a cooler part of the day. When the fruit is harvested at maturity, it turns from green to orange. If left on the vine too long, it will grow overly large and excessively bitter; eventually, the gourd will become spongy, split open, and begin to drop seeds. Immediately after harvest, fruit should be removed from the field and stored at 53 to 55°F at 85% to 90% relative humidity. In these conditions, shelf life can be extended by 2 to 3 weeks. Because bitter melon is highly perishable, it should be sold immediately. The fruit is sensitive to chilling and should not be stored at temperatures below 50°F. It should be kept away from other fruits that produce ethylene such as bananas, apples, and pineapples, as this will cause over-ripening.
Pests & Diseases
The most damaging pest to bitter melon is the aptly named melon fruit fly, which is difficult to control because its maggots feed on the fruit and populations quickly build.
The flies can be managed through field sanitation, protein baits, traps, insecticides, and growing resistant varieties. The fruit is also susceptible to other pests, including thrips, beetles, cutworms, aphids, bollworm and mites.
Like other members of the Cucurbitaceae family, bitter melon is vulnerable to diseases such as Cercospora leaf spot, downy mildew, powdery mildew, bacterial wilt, mosaic virus, root knot nematode and fungal infections.
Most of these diseases can be prevented with the use of fungicide sprays, particularly during extended wet periods.
References: Asian Vegetable Research & Development Center, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Tennessee State University College of Agriculture, University of Florida/IFAS Extension, University of California Cooperative Extension, USDA.
GRADES & GOOD ARRIVAL
There are no U.S. grade standards for bitter melon.