Bitter melon is a beautiful plant with deeply lobed leaves and eye-catching fruit that shifts from green to yellow to orange as it ripens. The taste is an acquired one for most people. It’s more bitter than an unripe grapefruit or very dark chocolate. For most individuals, the first taste is a mouth-puckering experience. But once you acquire the taste, don’t be surprised if you become addicted to this melon’s strong flavor.
A member of the squash family, bitter melon is native to southern China. Fruits are oblong and warty, usually about 8 inches long. The flesh has a watery, crunchy texture, similar to a pepper or cucumber. The bitter flavor is due to the melon’s quinine content. In many countries, bitter melon is consumed as a treatment for malaria.
This melon serves a nutritional punch, offering iron, twice the beta carotene of broccoli, twice the potassium of bananas, and twice the calcium of spinach. It also contains high amounts of fiber, phosphorous, and Vitamins C, B1, B2, and B3.
Note: While we do not currently carry this variety, we offer this information for gardeners who wish to grow it.
Soil, Planting, and Care
Like other members of the squash family, bitter melon produces vines that grow 13 to 16 feet long. Plant bitter melon where it receives at least 6 hours of sunshine. In Southern regions, it’s okay to site seedlings in a spot with light shade, as long as vines can ramble into full-sun areas.
Soil should be fertile, but well-drained, with a pH of 5.5 to 6.7. Adding composted manure or compost to enrich soil results in good yields.
This plant thrives in heat and humidity, and as summer temperatures rise, vines grow quickly. Fruits have a tendency to rot on moist soil, so it’s best to trellis vines. You can do this on a fence or evenly spaced supports. Not only does trellising reduce disease outbreaks on fruit, it also makes harvesting easier. When planting along a fence, space seedlings 9 to 10 feet apart.
Trellised vines produce hanging fruit, which grows long and straight. If you don’t trellis vines, be sure to mulch soil beneath vines. Use loose mulch, like straw, which helps keep soil moist but won’t promote fruit rot.
For trellised vines, as stems reach the top of the support, remove the growing tip along with a few lower lateral branches. This pruning causes vines to branch near the growing tip. These upper branches will yield strongly. If you’re not trellising vines, prune vines when the first female flowers appear.
Keep soil consistently moist. Like other squash or melons, bitter melon fruits develop best when soil moisture remains even. If you worked compost into soil before planting, you can still add a slow-release vegetable fertilizer, like 14-14-14, at planting time. As plants grow, fertilize plants midway through the growing season, or use Bonnie Herb, Vegetable & Flower Plant Food as a liquid fertilizer, applying more frequently (according to label directions).
Flowers typically start appearing on vines within a few weeks of planting. Like all cucurbits, bitter melon vines produce male and female flowers. Female blooms have a swelling at the base resembling a tiny melon. Male flowers open first, followed in a week or so by female blossoms. Bees visit both blooms, transferring pollen from male to female flowers. Usually male blooms live only one day, opening in the morning and falling from plants by dusk. Don’t be alarmed if you spy fallen flowers beneath vines.
Fruits are susceptible to various rots. Trellising can reduce rot issues. For non-trellised vines, use a straw mulch to keep melons from resting directly on moist soil. Fruit flies can attack ripening fruits. If flies become a problem, wrap ripening melons in newspaper.
Many of the diseases and insect pests that attack squash and cantaloupe also affect bitter melon plants. Vines are susceptible to powdery and downy mildew and are a host of watermelon mosaic virus. Treat vines infected with fungal diseases like mildew with fungicides. Check with a local garden center or Extension agent to discover which fungicides are available in your state. Plants don’t recover from the virus.
Watch for spotted and striped cucumber beetles, which can attack vines. These beetles carry bacterial wilt disease, which causes vines to collapse. Infected vines don’t recover. Treat adult beetles with rotenone or a pyrethrum-based insecticide; apply at dusk to avoid harming honey bees.
Harvest and Storage
Bitter melon doesn’t give many clues regarding the right time to harvest. Most gardeners pick fruits when they’re green or have a few hints of yellow. Fruits that have turned completely yellow are over-ripe and will have spongy flesh. Many professional bitter melon growers time harvest based solely on fruit size. Young and tender fruits are roughly 4 to 6 inches long.
Bitterness varies with maturity and individual fruit. Immature melons are usually more bitter. Just as individual chili peppers from the same plant can offer different degrees of heat, so different bitter melons from the same vine can contain differing degrees of bitterness. For newcomers to bitter melon, slightly overly mature fruits may prove more palatable, since the bitterness will be somewhat lessened.
Once melons start to ripen, pick fruits regularly, approximately every two to three days. The more you pick, the more fruits will form.
Store melons in a paper or plastic bag in the refrigerator. Use within 3 to 5 days of harvest.
To prepare bitter melon, slice the fruit open and remove seeds and pith. Do not peel. Beginners to bitter melon may parboil the fruit to lessen bitterness, although aficionados say this changes the texture too much.
Typically bitter melon is stuffed, pickled, or curried and served with meat or in soup. The fruit pairs well with other strong flavors, like garlic, Chinese black beans, chili peppers, or coconut milk. Frequently, bitter melon is stuffed with pork or shrimp and steamed.
Bitter melon enables glucose uptake and is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat Type 2 diabetes. If you suffer from hypoglycemia, use caution consuming bitter melon. The combination of the melon plus the drugs typically used to treat hypoglycemia can decrease blood sugar levels to dangerously low levels.