Bitter melon or bitter gourd are used, among other things, against diabetes. Here’s how to properly plant and care for the Asian vegetable.
The bitter melon (Momordica charantia), also known as Goya, bitter apple, bitter gourd, bitter squash or balsam-pear, belongs to the gourd family (Cucurbitaceae) and originates from China and India. In addition, the tropical vegetable is cultivated mainly in North America and the Caribbean. In Ayurvedic medicine, the vegetable is traditionally used for diabetes.
Appearance and growth
Bitter melon is a herbaceous and slender-growing climbing plant with shoot axes two to five meters (6 to 15 feet) long, which is perennial in its natural habitat, but is cultivated only as an annual in temperate climates. It forms long, vine-like foliage leaves that are sparsely hairy. The five- to seven-lobed leaf blades grow up to 10 cm (4 in) long. They have a coarsely toothed leaf margin.
The flowers of the monoecious species appear in June/July. They are bright yellow and have a vanilla fragrance. The fruit, which develops on the long female flower stalk, is cucumber-like, oval-elongated in shape, about ten centimeters long, nubby like a wart, and initially light green. Later, the fruit turns yellow to orange and bursts open. Enclosed in strong red flesh are about ten oval seeds with grooved edges.
Location and soil
In general, bitter melon grows in warm, moist and sunny places, which is why temperate climate is suitable for cultivation in a greenhouse or in very mild regions. The soil should be rich in nutrients, humus, deep and capable of retaining moisture.
Crop rotation and mixed culture
Like other cucurbits, you should not grow bitter melon following itself or other cucurbits.
Sowing bitter melon
It is recommended to preplant bitter cucumber indoors or in a heated greenhouse in March/April. Sow two seeds at a time in seed pots with humus garden soil and place them at a room window in a warm (at about 22 to 25 °C (72 to 77 °F)) and bright location. For the germination of bitter melon, it is important that the seeds always remain evenly moist. After two weeks, the seedlings appear, which are transplanted into larger pots as soon as they reach a height of about 15 centimeters (6 in).
Planting bitter melon
After the frosts, the young plants can go outdoors in a warm and sheltered place with a planting distance of 30 x 40 centimeters (12 x 16 inches). But the best harvest success is achieved in the greenhouse. Alternatively, you can keep the plants in large planters. In any case, attach a climbing aid, such as a trellis or thin cords. The climbing bitter melon also does well on the outside wall of a pergola. Water the young plants well.
Care of bitter melon
Bittermelons, like other cucurbits, are heavy feeders and should be adequately watered and nourished. A weekly application of commercial liquid fertilizer during the main growing season and comfrey manure is also recommended. Once the tendrils of bitter cucumber are 80 to 100 centimeters (32 to 40 inches) long, you should cut off the side shoots after the first leaves appear This will produce more shoots and fruit. Direct the tendrils upwards in a similar way to serpent cucumbers. This is especially true for a culture in a large tub. Remove withered leaves regularly.
Diseases and pests
When grown in a greenhouse, spider mites or powdery mildew can occur. Sufficiently large planting distances can reduce the risk of infestation.
Harvest and use bitter melons
About three weeks after flowering, you can harvest the fruit, which is still somewhat unripe, because ripe fruits burst. As its name suggests, the bitter melon contains bitter substances. Therefore, you should boil already young fruits briefly in water before eating them, so that they lose the bitter flavor somewhat. However, you can also prepare the vegetable raw as a salad. Cut off the ends, peel the bitter melon like a cucumber and deseed the fruit. In Asian cuisine, the fruit, shoots and leaves of the vegetable are cooked and served with meat and fish dishes. The ground seeds serve as a spice.
Bitter melon as a medicinal plant
The bitter melon is not only popular as a food. It is valued above all in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda as a medicinal plant. In addition to carotenoids, vitamins and calcium, the fruits contain charantin, a chemical substance similar in structure to insulin. Together with proteins, charantin has a blood sugar-lowering effect and helps alleviate type II diabetes. The vegetable is also said to have an appetite-suppressing effect. The effect has been confirmed by the University of Giessen (Germany) and the International Vegetable Research Center Taiwan. Lipids contained in cucumbers reduce blood sugar, saponins also present reduce body weight.