Bitter Melon: All About This Plant That Tastes (Quite Surprisingly) Bitter

Bitter melon (Momordica charantia) is an annual vegetable plant and a Cucurbitaceae family member that includes plants like squash, watermelon, muskmelon cucumber. Bitter melon is also called bitter gourd, bitter apple, bitter gourd, bitter squash, balsam pear, or even karela.

It is a tropical and subtropical plant widely grown in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean for its edible fruit. Since it is a subtropical plant and requires at least three to four months of warm, hot, and humid weather to mature, this article explains what the bitter melon plant is and how we use it.

We use bitter melon mostly in Asian cuisines, especially in East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asian cooking, but the plant is available in the United States in Asian markets. Many bitter melon varieties differ substantially with differences in fruit shape, color, size, skin tubercles, and fruit bitterness.

The bitterness in cucurbit comes from the alkaloid momordicine that the plant contains. The darker the bitter melon variety is, the bitter and intense the fruit’s flavor is.

Common NameBitter Melon Or Bitter Gourd (Or Karela In India)
Botanical NameMomordica Charantia
Plant TypeDepending On The Climate, Annual Or A Perennial
Size (Fully Grown)Develops Vines That Can Be 13 To 16 Feet (About 3,9 To 4,9 Meters), Long
Sun ExposureFull Sun
Soil TypePrefers Well-draining Soil That Is Rich In Organic Matter
Soil pHFrom 5.5 To 6.7
Flower ColorYellow
U.S. Hardiness Zones6, 7, 8, 9, 10, And 11
Native AreaSouthern China And Eastern India

How Many Bitter Melon Varieties Are There?

There is a wide range of bitter melon varieties, and it comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. The varieties grown in the summer season are small-fruited, and those raised in the rainy season are long fruited.

Bitter melon is native to both India and China, and the plant variety varies on the regions it is grown in. For example, bitter melons grown in India have a narrow surface with pointed ends, and the bitter melons grown in China are oblong with blunt ends and have a gently warty surface. Here are a few recommended bitter gourd varieties listed below:

  1. Large Top
  2. Arka Harit
  3. Japan Long
  4. China Pearl
  5. Phule Ujwala
  6. Taiwan Large
  7. Taiwan White
  8. Pusa Vishesh
  9. Phule Priyanka
  10. Bangkok Large
  11. Pride of Gujarat
  12. Pusa Do Mausmi
  13. India Long White
  14. Coimbatore Long
  15. India Long Green
  16. Phule Green Gold
  17. Hong Kong Green
  18. Southern Money Maker

Origins And History Of The Bitter Melon Plant

Bitter melon originated from India and was introduced in China in the 14th century. The name bitter melon represents the vegetable itself as it is very bitter, both raw and cooked. People have used the plant throughout Southeast Asia for hundreds of years. Bitter melon is also widely used in South America, the Caribbean, and other tropical regions.

These small fruits are wildly popular in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal, and other South Asia countries. The sub-continent variety is most prevalent in Bangladesh and India. Today, bitter melons are as likely to be cultivated throughout the world for their immature fruit.

How Can You Recognize Bitter Melon?

Bitter melon is an herbaceous, tendril-bearing vine plant that can grow up to 16 feet (about 4,9 meters) in length. The plant has deeply lobed leaves that extend the same way as squash, cucumber, and watermelon.

Each plant produces separate male and female flowers, and the fruit has a distinct warty exterior and an oblong shape, usually about 8 inches (about 20 cm) long. Still, fruits can vary in length and be between 2 and 10 inches (about 5 to 25 cm) long.

The color of the fruit varies from green to yellow and to orange as it ripens. The fruit of the bitter melon is eaten once it is green or when it’s beginning to turn yellow. The flesh has a watery, crunchy texture, like a cucumber, and the skin is tender and edible.

The seeds and the pith are white when the fruit is still unripe, but they aren’t very bitter, and thus you can remove them before cooking. If you ever start to grow bitter melon, it’s also good to know that the plant gets more rigid and bitter when it ages.

How To Grow Bitter Melon?

As we already know, bitter melon is a warm-season plant, and that’s why you should grow it only in tropical and subtropical areas that have a warm and humid growing environment.

The optimal time to plant it is in late spring or early summer. Sow the seed outdoors when the danger of frost has passed. For example, a reasonable time frame would be about two or three weeks after the last frost and once the soil is warm, at least 60 to 65°F (approximately 15,5 to 18,3°C).

Next, let’s prepare the growing beds in advance before planting by adding high-quality compost to the ground. Sow the seeds in holes about half-inch (approximately 1,3 cm) deep and spaced 12 inches (about 30 cm) apart from each other.

Believe me or not, you can even grow bitter melon in a pot. So, to do this successfully, remember to choose a container/pot that can hold at least 5 gallons (about 19 liters) of potting soil. But, don’t forget to make sure that the box drains well!

Bitter melon is ready to be harvested about 12 to 16 weeks after planting and 8 to 10 days when the fruits are 4 to 6 inches long, are pear-shaped, has light green skin, and contains a few yellow streaks.

It’s also good to know that if you let the fruits stay too long on the vine, they will get too ripe and turn entirely yellow, grow even more, and become way too bitter.

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Light Needs

Like other plants in the Cucurbitaceae family, bitter melon also needs a full sun growth environment. So, before planting, makes sure you choose a warm, sunny location that it can get at least 6 hours of sunlight per day.

Temperature

As we’ve already noted, bitter melon is a summer plant that grows well in tropical regions and can not bear cold or frost. So, remember to grow them only if the daytime temperatures your garden gets average between 75 to 80°F (23,8 to 27°C).

In What Type Of Soil Doies Bitter Melon Grow Best In?

The plant grows well in compost-rich, well-draining soil that has a pH ranging from 5.5 to 6.7. The plant can also tolerate less desirable sandy or slightly loamy soil, but good drainage is essential.

Water

The plant grows well in evenly moist conditions and needs regular watering for its fruit development and growth.

Fertilizer

High-quality compost will do wonders for bitter melon. But if you don’t have a chance to make compost, you can also add some slow-release organic fertilizer with an NPK ratio of 5-10-10 around plants early in the season.

The Many Uses And Benefits Bitter Melon Has

Bitter Melon is the kind of plant that has many purposes and benefits. The plant serves different cuisines and carries various health benefits that make it an excellent fruit. For example, besides its sharp flavor and distinct look, it has been associated with several impressive health benefits.

But, because I don’t want to keep you excited anymore, let’s talk about this fantastic plant’s many uses and advantages.

Uses

Like we talked about before, the plant has many uses, and thus, you can cook, ferment, steam, fry, stuff it with pork or shrimp, or even serve it with meat.

Bitter melon is also used in traditional Chinese medicine and alternative medicine to treat type 2 diabetes. The benefits don’t end here; people also use the plant to treat high blood pressure. But before you use this plant to treat a disease, talk with your doctor instead of believing our advice!

Bitter melon is packed with many essential nutrients such as Vitamin C, Vitamin A, Folate, and small amounts of potassium, zinc, and iron. The latest research has even shown that bitter melon contains certain compounds that have cancer-fighting properties. This is just speculation on our part, so remember to ask for advice from a medical professional instead of us!

Is it Safe To Eat / Consume Bitter Melon?

Bitter melon has many health benefits and safe both when used raw and cooked but may cause an upset stomach in some people. When you consume the plant in a high amount, it may cause side effects such as diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, hypoglycemia, urinary incontinence, and even chest pain. Symptoms are generally mild, which means that they don’t need treatment, and they resolve with rest.

Pregnant And Breastfeeding Women

Unlike most fruits and vegetables, bitter melon isn’t that safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women. The main reason for this is because bitter melon contains chemicals that might start your menstrual bleeding, and animal tests have even caused abortion.

I would also tell you not to eat the plant when you’re still breastfeeding because we don’t know enough of its impacts on breastmilk and, thus, on the baby. So it is advisable not to eat bitter melon when your pregnant or breastfeeding your baby.

Children

As its name suggests, bitter melon is bitter, so the best way to get your kid to eat this plant is to mix it with other ingredients that your child likes to eat. For example, a great dish that includes bitter melon as an ingredient is aamchoori karela.

The plant is also beneficial to children who have diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes, but let’s talk about that later. But before you forget entirely, keep in mind that the excessive use of this plant may cause side effects that we talked about earlier in this chapter.

People With Allergies

Allergies, like one towards bitter melon, can occur about half an hour after eating the plant. So, if you feel symptoms like itching, swelling of the mouth, your nose starts to run extensively, or you have skin rashes and hives, you are unfortunately allergic to this plant.

People With Diabetes

We hope you already know about the many benefits this great plant has, but this is not the end, not even close. This is because bitter melon is also suitable and even recommendable for people who have diabetes. The plant contains a lot of polypeptide-p, which can prevent sudden sugar level spikes. For example, it’s an excellent idea to drink bitter gourd juice every morning and add that habit to your morning routine.

As a reminder, bitter melon is also known as bitter gourd!

Pets

Thankfully, this excellent plant is safe for both cats and dogs. You can add it to your pet’s cooking bowl, whether it’s raw or cooked. But it would be best if you see a little effort and cut the plant into smaller pieces, so your pet’s eating is more effortless.

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