Mormordica charantia, or bitter gourd, is tightly linked to the cucumber and appears a bit like a large, warty zucchini. Normally called bitter melon in the United States, this fruit lives up to its common name. The bitter taste is foreign to most American palates and takes getting used to, but it adds a zesty snack to many cooked dishes. Grown as an yearly vine in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 10 and 11, bitter melon is comparatively pest-free and easy to grow with patience and suitable support.
Chinese vs. Indian Melon
Indian and Chinese gourds have exactly the same hardiness, cultural requirements and bitter taste (particularly to those not familiar with the bitter melon taste). The sole difference is the appearance of the fruit. Indian bitter gourds are narrower than the Chinese type, as opposed to a zucchini. They’ve irregular ridges and triangle-shaped “teeth” all on the surface of the skin, along with slightly ragged ridges. Indian bitter gourds may be green or white. Chinese gourds can grow over 11 inches long and have blunt ends. Broader than Indian gourds, they have light green skins scattered liberally with wart-like bumps. Both types have thick skins and white seeds.
Mormordica charantia germinates easily from seed. Seeds could be hard to find locally if no Asian markets are nearby, but you can buy them via mail order or harvest your personal from the mature gourd, that turns bright orange since the fruit ages. Given enough time, the gourd will break open and the outer component curls up, revealing seeds covered in dark red pulp. Germination is improved if the seeds are soaked in water for 48 hours, according to the National Bitter Melon Council’s website.
The seeds can be started inside or sown directly into the soil, 1.5 to 2 feet apart, once the outside temperature is above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Both Indian and Chinese bitter melons grow best in full to partial sunlight and require moist, well-drained soil. Although the vine can sprawl along the ground, it may be less vulnerable to ailments if it rises vertically. Bitter gourds require a trellis, pole or other scaling support that’s at least 6 feet tall.
Yellow, vanilla-scented flowers appear in spring to early summer. Flowers are both female and male and are followed by the fruit, which can be generally ready to harvest two months following planting. Fruit should be picked while it is young, eight to 10 days following blossom drop. Chinese bitter gourds are at their least bitter while the fruits are small — about 4 to 6 inches long. Indian bitter gourds can be harvested once they are 4 inches long.
You may cut the bitter taste of this fruit by cutting it into pieces and salting it, as with eggplant, or boiling slices in a brine of sugar, salt, turmeric and vinegar. Even though Chinese bitter gourds are frequently utilized in Taiwan, China and the Philippines for stir fry dishes, in India, the fruits are commonly used with meats or onions.