If you haven’t grown up around balsam pear plants, it can come as a bit of a shock that this bumpy or at times spiky plant is actually edible! When ripe it’s bitter, semi-hollow, and delicious! While it goes by many names such as balsam apple, Momordica charantia, or bitter gourd, this sometimes green, sometimes white, sometimes orange fruit is well-loved in much of Chinese and Indian cuisine.
Momordica charantia plants are commonly eaten throughout the east, and increasingly around the world. It is an incredibly healthy plant that is used as a folk remedy to treat a variety of complaints and to aid in overall health.
Momordica charantia is a vigorous grower. It can easily take over a yard and drop its fruit which will in turn sprout and take over another area, so growing it in a contained environment is a good idea. Some parts of the US consider this fruit to be invasive, so keep an eye on its growth habit.
Balsam pear (Momordica charantia) comes in a variety of colors. All are edible, but it’s important to know which variety they are to know when to harvest. While the fruit is used culinarily, the leaves are very popular to make a healing tea. This species puts out fruit that is tender, edible, and most of all, exotic!
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Quick Care Guide
|Common Name(s)||Bitter gourd; bitter melon; bitter apple|
|Scientific Name||Momordica charantia|
|Days to Harvest||40-65+ Depending on the variety|
|Light||6+ Hours to full light for vines; shaded area for roots|
|Water||Water 1 inch per week; more if roots are in direct sunlight|
|Soil||Fertile well-draining soil; pH 5.5-6.7|
|Fertilizer||Balanced (ex. 10-10-10)|
|Diseases||Powdery mildew, Fusarium wilt|
All About Balsam Pear
Balsam pear, the Momordica charantia, is the perfect garden plant. It will twine and leap around your garden if given the chance while always producing a show-stopping and conversation-starting harvest! This dangling vegetable is a part of the cucurbit family and like its more familiar cousins, the old world squash and cucumber, it grows on long thin vines with large semi-hollow fruit and deeply lobed spade-shaped leaves shading its lovely bounty.
Momordica charantia, also known as the bitter melon, balsam apple, bitter apple, or bitter gourd is unsurprisingly rather bitter in flavor even when ripe.
The Indian version of the Momordica charantia plant has dark green skin and is very bumpy and spiky in appearance. The Chinese varieties are usually smoother on the exterior and while still bitter, are more tender and need less cooking time than their Indian counterparts.
Bitter melon vines can reach 13-16 ft. in length with leaves that range in size from a quarter to the size of a child’s face! The deeply lobed spade-shaped leaves can look very elegant, especially with the small yellow flowers sticking out from under them. Balsam Pear has both male and female flowers, and pollen from the male flowers needs to find its way into the female flowers in order for pollination to occur. In the mid to late summer, after the plant has been growing for close to two months, you can expect a continuous harvest until temperatures dip back below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The seeds range in color from red to tan and are about the size of a dime.
The balsam pear is used culinarily in two different ways. While most commonly used is the fruit of the bitter melon in stir-fries and curries, the leaves are also sometimes used to flavor soups and make healing teas. Bitter melon is anecdotally considered to help people with digestive problems, ulcers, diabetes, or in need of laxatives or anti-aging properties.
Planting Bitter Melon
Bitter melon, or Momordica charantia, is best planted in late spring to early summer. It enjoys the heat and cannot tolerate even the lightest of frosts. Make sure that all chances of cold snaps have passed, and that warm weather is on the horizon. Momordica charantia enjoys temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit so plan accordingly.
First, germinate the seeds by placing them in soil or wet paper towels and ensuring that they are kept evenly moist for 2-4 days. Wait until the seeds open and a white taproot emerges before taking them out of the moist paper towel and placing the seeds in the soil. Bitter melon requires well-fertilized soil with good drainage.
Place your bitter melon plant in a location that gets at least 6 hours of sun a day, preferably more. Momordica charantia enjoys snaking its vines all over the garden and allowing its green or bright orange fruits to hang without touching a trellis or the ground. Momordica charantia are great plants to grow in containers (like the expertly-crafted Air Pots in our shop) near the base of trees. The plants will often send vines up through the branches to reach sunlight allowing the leaves to soak up sunlight and heat while keeping the roots cool.
If you don’t have a tree available to play host to your balsam apple, be sure to provide a sturdy trellis or fence that it can grow on.
Balsam apple can grow pretty much unaided if given the chance. Its vines will search for the right conditions to bear mature green and orange fruits, and its bounty of bright yellow flowers will see many bees visiting to help with pollination. Providing the proper care for your plants will ensure many delicious fruits are on the menu!
Sun and Temperature
Momordica charantia is a subtropical plant, and as a result, craves the warm conditions and moist environment that subtropical plants are accustomed to. While the vines crave full sun, the roots need a more sheltered type of environment. Think about the conditions you often see in a subtropical environment with mature plants growing into and over one another. Each plant searches for the sun with its vines and leaves, and the roots nestle securely in the shade where moisture collects. Those are the kinds of conditions you’re trying to replicate in the home garden.
Balsam pear grows best in zones 9-11, so growers in cooler climates might try growing this in a greenhouse. If growing in a greenhouse without the presence of pollinators, you will need to pollinate by hand by taking the pollen of the male yellow flowers and rubbing it on the female yellow flowers making sure not to detach the yellow flowers from the vine. A small paintbrush or cotton swab makes an effective pollination tool.
Water and Humidity
Watering is a must for this subtropical plant! It is NOT drought-tolerant. Bitter apple needs a healthy amount of watering and does not tolerate dry conditions. Try watering at least one inch per week at the base of the plant. While this plant does well on a drip line or a soaker hose, hand watering is best. Be sure to thoroughly soak the area around the roots while avoiding the foliage of the plant. Soak the area two or three times.
If your Momordica charantia roots are in open and direct sunlight, you may need to water a second time during the week.
Momordica charantia isn’t too picky when it comes to soil. It can quickly adapt to its growing area as long as the soil has compost worked into it, and good drainage. As it prefers a soil pH of between 5.5-6.7, most garden soils work well. For gardens with high alkalinity, try growing in containers where you can easily control the pH.
Momordica charantia are not heavy feeders, but they do need fertilizer right as they begin to flower. Try giving them a balanced fertilizer like a 10-10-10 when the first sign of their yellow flowers begins to emerge.
Additionally, when first planting balsam apple seeds, use compost or well-rotted manure as part of the initial potting mix. Momordica charantia uses nitrogen in order to vine.
While pruning is not completely necessary for balsam pear, it is strongly recommended. This edible fruit will produce a multitude of green vines that can easily take over the garden. In order to make the garden tidier, and to increase the size of the ripe fruit, many people will trim their Momordica charantia back to make it more manageable.
To prune for aesthetics, twine the vines up along string or trellis keeping the vines about one foot apart. Keep the vines from getting too close together to help prevent bug infestations. Remove all vines that grow along the ground.
To improve the flavor and size of the ripe fruit, snip back the tips of growing vines to about 5 to 6 leaves past the last fruit. This limits the number of fruits you can get but increases the size and flavor of your fruits.
Momordica charantia is grown exclusively from seeds. You can source seeds that are either tan or red in color and germinate them using the methods described above.
Harvesting and Storing
Momordica charantia can ripen pretty quickly, but signs of ripeness differ among varieties. Some are ripe while green, others ripen to orange or white. It’s important to know what variety you’ve planted so that you know when to harvest!
Different varieties have different hallmarks of being ripe, but most balsam apple types have mature fruits about 10 days after their yellow flowers drop. Keep an eye on the color of the skin, the most common Chinese type has a soft green color that needs to be harvested before the fruits turn a deep green color. A common Indian type isn’t ripe until it achieves a dark green color. Other types are grown to be a bright orange color or even a pale white. It’s important to know what types of seeds are in use as that will let you know the color of the mature fruits.
In order to harvest, hold your ripe fruit and snip the connecting stem right before the vine. Be careful not to cut the vine as there may be more fruits still growing.
After harvesting, try putting your harvest in brown paper bags in the fridge for the longest shelf life. The fruit will only last about 3-5 days so use it quickly. Alternatively, you can cut up your Momordica charantia, scoop out the seeds, and freeze.
To reduce the bitter flavor notes of the bitter melon fruit, many people use salt. This makes the ripe fruit more edible and palatable for those who are sensitive to bitter flavors. Salt draws out some of the bitter-flavored juice from inside the ripe fruit, so you may want to set your salted fruit into a colander to allow that liquid to readily drain off. Prior to cooking, rinse the excess salt and moisture off the fruit. Some even suggest letting your bitter melon sit in saltwater in the refrigerator overnight to make it a more appealing item on the menu, but a couple of hours of exposure to salt is usually good enough to render it edible and in fact tasty!
There are a few problems associated with growing Momordica charantia. Most of them have to do with environmental factors.
The most common issue with growing Momordica charantia is failure to fruit. This usually occurs when pollination fails to happen. In order for the plant to fruit, the pollen from the male flower needs to find its way into the female flower with the baby fruit attached. Simply pluck the male flower off the vine, and rub its stamen on the stamen of the female flower that must remain attached to the vine. Alternately, use a fine paintbrush or a cotton swab to collect pollen from a male flower and then swab it throughout the interior of the female flower.
Another growing problem that the balsam apple has is lackluster growth. This can be caused by a variety of factors. First, the plant may be in soil that is too alkaline in which case it should be transplanted to more acidic soil. It can also grow slowly which is an indicator that it is not receiving enough warmth and heat. For areas with cooler springs, you may need to wait until the heat of the summer arrives, and move your plant to a warmer area to see your balsam apple fruit.
There are some pests that attack the balsam apple plant. The best method to combat them is always prevention. Keep your vines neatly pruned and trellised so they have plenty of airflow and sunlight. If pests do appear, address their presence as quickly as possible to prevent a larger infestation.
Aphids are a common pest on Momordica charantia. They suck the sap from the inside of the plant and often transmit other diseases. The eggs can be killed off with insecticidal soap or neem oil. Severe outbreaks can be treated with pyrethrin. You can also plant flowers like daisies that attract ladybugs, a natural predator of the aphid.
There are also diseases that can attack your precious balsam apple plant. Several of them are diseases that thrive in warm and moist conditions. Keep an eye out for these problems and address them quickly so your plants can thrive!
Powdery mildew is a fungal condition where white powdery spots appear on leaves in warm and humid conditions. It especially thrives on plants in overcast conditions. The best solution is prevention by ensuring good airflow among the plants. Several organic options that kill powdery mildew include spraying copper or sulfur fungicides, or a broad-spectrum fungicide such as chlorothalonil.
Your Momordica charantia plant suddenly wilting and leaves turning yellow can be a symptom of Fusarium wilt. If your plant succumbs to this fungal infection, be sure to remove all parts of the plant from the garden and put them in the trash. Do not compost infected material, and avoid planting susceptible species in the same soil for a few years. Some forms of mycological treatment are showing to be effective in the prevention of Fusarium fungi, and using those when planting may reduce the chances of your bitter melon plants encountering this issue.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Is balsam pear poisonous?
A: No! It is in fact quite healthy for you!
Q: How do you prepare bitter melon to eat?
A: For Chinese balsam apple: Simply slice open and remove seeds, and chop to use in stir-fries and soups. If desired, apply salt as for the Indian form to reduce the bitter flavor. For Indian balsam apple: Peel off the skin using a veggie peeler. Wash well, slice it in half and remove all the seeds. Salt all surfaces of the fruit. Let cure for 2 hours and then rinse the salt off before cooking.
Q: Is balsam pear invasive?
A: Yes, it can be! Its vines rapidly snake through the garden and can easily look overgrown. Be sure to snag ripe fruits before their seeds germinate and grow new plants.