Momordica charantia, also called bitter melon, bitter apple, bitter gourd, bitter squash or balsam-pear, is a delicious and healthy addition to any garden and kitchen.
But what exactly is it, and how can you grow it at home?
Our expert gardeners provide invaluable tips and tricks in this bitter melon growing guide while answering common questions about this delicious vegetable.
To finish up, we’ll also look at some of the best ways to cook with it.
What is bitter melon?
Bitter melon (Latin name: Momordica charantia) is a vegetable widely used in Asian cooking and traditional medicine.
Despite its numerous common names, it is not a type of apple or pear, though it is a relative of melons and gourds. This plant is part of the Cucurbitaceae family, including squash, courgette, watermelon, pumpkins, and cucumbers.
The bitter melon’s main feature is its fruit, which is similar in shape to a cucumber but often warty and even spiky. It has a distinct bitter taste, which is especially noticeable when raw.
The bitterness results from quinine found in bitter melon and can be so intense when raw that some people find it almost inedible. Luckily, it becomes more palatable when cooked, and it’s packed full of nutrients and vitamins, making bitter melon a very healthy vegetable.
Where is bitter melon grown?
Native to India, bitter melon was introduced to China in the 14th century. It has spread worldwide and cultivated in areas ranging from the United States and the Caribbean to Europe and Africa.
Its widespread growth as a crop and its many culinary uses have resulted in bitter melon having several regional names, depending on where it’s grown.
Some of the best-known names for bitter gourd include the following:
- India and Nepal: karela
- China (Mandarin): kǔguā
- Japan: nigauri or gōyā
- Philippines: ampalaya
- Sri Lanka: karavila
- Thailand: mara
Asian bitter melon is a tropical and subtropical plant that, similar to cucumbers, grows on vines. It can reach heights of nearly 16 feet (approx. 5 meters), producing lobed leaves and yellow flowers similar to those of cucumber or watermelon.
Unlike other types of melons or cucumbers, bitter melon is picked when the fruit is still under-ripe, as they tend to become (even more) bitter and stringy with age.
From bitter gourd to balsam pear: the many varieties of bitter melon
There are numerous hybrids and cultivars of bitter melon, yet they are all descendants of two main varieties: the Chinese and the Indian bitter melon.
Let’s take a quick look at what sets them apart.
The main types of bitter melon
1. Indian bitter melon
Also known as karela, Indian bitter melon is easy to identify due to its size and shape. The fruit can grow between 4 to 10 inches long (10 to 25 cm), with a narrow, cylindrical shape, and a thick skin covered in small ridges and pointy ‘warts,’ also known as ‘teeth.’ It’s usually green when young, but as it matures, it becomes yellow or orange. Some varieties, such as the white bitter melon, have white flesh and outer skin.
2. Chinese bitter melon
The Chinese bitter melon looks a bit more similar to a regular cucumber than the Indian variety. It grows around 8 to 12 inches long (20 to 30 cm), is light green, and the skin has a warty texture, without the edges and ridges of its Indian cousin. Chinese bitter gourd also resembles a zucchini in appearance, with a rounded end, instead of the Indian variety, which is pointy.
Both Chinese and Indian bitter melons taste the same, and they require the same growing conditions. The only difference between them is appearance, with the Indian variety having a pointy shape and ridges on the skin. In contrast, the Chinese type is more rounded and only slightly warty or wrinkled.
How to grow bitter melon
Growing bitter melon can be tricky in some climates, and it might not always be possible to grow outdoors in certain areas. However, read on to discover some top tips to ensure a great harvest no matter where you live.
Before you start thinking about planting bitter melon in your garden, there are a few key things to remember:
- Bitter melon is a tropical/subtropical plant, so it needs plenty of warmth and moisture.
- Seed germination is highly reliant on temperature.
- This is a vining plant, and it will need trellises to climb on.
- The plant produces separate male and female flowers, and it is not self-pollinating.
Knowing this in advance will give you a better idea of what to expect and allow you to manage the space in your garden. Based on this, you can also decide whether you’re going to need a greenhouse or whether you can grow bitter gourds in containers. So, with that in mind, let’s start with the basics of growing these plants.
– How to plant bitter melon seeds
Start by picking the type of bitter gourd you wish to grow, and buy high-quality seeds from a trusted vendor. The seeds are roughly the same size and shape as pumpkin seeds but with a wrinkly shell. Due to the thick outer layer, bitter melon seeds should be soaked for around 24 hours before sowing to encourage germination.
Bitter melon seeds require the soil temperature to be at least 68°F (20°C) to germinate, so growing them in temperate climates can be tricky. Usually, for planting outdoors, you will need to wait until late spring to ensure that any danger of frost has passed and that the soil is warm enough. Frost can slow down the harvest a bit, so to save yourself some time, we recommend germinating them indoors.
Choose the best seedling pots
To germinate bitter gourd seeds, we always prefer using biodegradable seedling pots. These pots will give you more control over how much water and light each plant gets, and it also makes transplanting easier.
Removing the small plants from their seedling trays can often damage the roots or shock the plant when it is moved outdoors. When using biodegradable or compostable pots, you can bury the pots directly in the soil without damaging the fragile seedlings. The pots will decompose over time, providing the plants with additional nutrients along the way.
Pick a compostable seedling pot around 2 inches (5 cm) deep and place one seedling in each pot. Ensure that the seeds have been soaked for 24 hours before sowing to soften the tough outer layer. Cover the seeds with a light layer of compost or potting soil, no more than 0.4 inches (1 cm) thick. Give the pot a thorough watering, and place it in a bright spot, where the temperatures are ideally around 70°F (21°C) or higher.
You should start seeing the seedlings sprout through the soil around 9 to 14 days later. Once the plants have at least 2 sets of leaves each, you can start moving them outside, into the garden soil.
– Growing bitter melon outdoors
You can sow bitter melon seeds in your garden in late spring when you’re sure the temperature won’t drop below 68°F (20°C). As a tropical and subtropical plant, bitter gourd grows best between 77°F (25°C) and 95 °F (35°F). Depending on where you live, obtaining this temperature range may be difficult, so if possible, try growing these vegetables in a greenhouse.
Check your soil!
Before sowing your bitter melon seeds in the garden, start by preparing the soil. This plant needs well-draining, nutrient-rich soil, with a pH ranging from 5.5 to 6.7. Proper drainage is crucial but should be balanced out by a soil that does retain moisture throughout hot, summer days.
If the water stagnates in the soil, the roots can rot, and the plant will develop pathogens, causing it to wilt and die. Meanwhile, if water drains too fast, the soil dries out too quickly.
If you’re not sure if the soil in your garden is well-draining, you can perform a percolation test to check if your soil is up for the job.
- Dig a hole in the ground that’s 1 foot (30 cm) wide and deep.
- Fill the hole with water.
- Use a timer to check how long it takes for all the water in the hole to drain away.
For bitter melon, soil that takes between 30 minutes and 1 hour to drain is ideal. If the soil is taking too long to drain, you will need to add amendments such as compost, vermiculite, or bark and coco coir mixes.
Support your bitter melon!
Bitter gourd is a vining plant that can climb to heights of up to 16 feet (approx. 5 meters), so you will need to provide it with trellises. It’s essential to plan this, as it also has an impact on spacing the plants.
Although it’s possible to grow bitter melon as a ground creeper, it’s not something we recommend. This method requires more care, and you will need to provide a layer of straw underneath or a plastic tarp to prevent the fruit from rotting when in contact with the moist soil. If you don’t have space for trellises, you can try growing these vegetables along a fence.
Sow the seeds (or transplant the seedlings germinated indoors) 12 inches (30 cm) apart. If you’re growing bitter melon along a fence, you can space the plants out as far as 10 feet (3 meters).
These plants can thrive in hot and humid conditions and will climb over any surface in no time. Ensure they have plenty of space to spread out from a young age, as this will promote healthier growth, reduce the risks of pests and diseases, and encourage an abundant harvest.
Location, watering, and fertilizer
Bitter melon loves the sun, so pick a part of the garden where it can get at least 6 hours of sunshine each day. Water regularly, keeping the soil moist but not soggy. Add a layer of mulch to the plants’ base to help retain soil moisture and provide additional nutrients. You can also apply a slow-release fertilizer when the plant starts blooming. However, if the soil has been prepared with sufficient compost before sowing, you don’t need to worry about feeding.
When you notice the first female flowers make an appearance, you can start pruning your bitter melon. Using a pair of gardening scissors, cut the topmost of your bitter melon vines and the ones growing too close to the ground. Pruning will not only help the plant become bushy, but it will also make it redirect nutrients and energy towards more flowers and fruit.
Speaking of flowers and fruit, let’s take a quick look at how pollination works for this plant.
– Does bitter melon need pollinating?
Like cucumbers, pumpkins, and squash, bitter gourd relies on pollination to produce fruit. When the plant is about 5 or 6 weeks old, it will start producing male flowers, followed by female flowers around 1 week later. The two flowers look similar at first, with five rounded, yellow petals. However, the female flowers have a small swelling at the base, which will become the fruit after being pollinated.
Bitter gourd grown outside, in the open air, relies on insects such as bees for pollination. But if you’re growing it in an enclosure, such as a greenhouse, you will need to pollinate it manually. To do that, cut the male flower and gently tap the pollen on the female flowers. The best time to do this is early in the day when the plants are active.
– Growing bitter melon in pots or containers
If you don’t have an outdoor garden, you can also grow bitter gourd on your balcony in a pot. The process is quite similar to growing it outdoors. However, you need to provide the plant with plenty of space for climbing. We recommend providing your bitter melon with a trellis that allows it to vine upwards, and then encourage it to spread out horizontally by pruning the plant’s top when it has reached the maximum allowed height.
Choose the right container
Bitter melon needs plenty of space both above and below the ground. For optimal root development, pick a container that’s at least 10 gallons (38 liters), with drainage holes at the bottom. Use a mixture of compost, vermiculite, and coir to ensure that the water drains appropriately while retaining moisture. Place the container in a sunny part of your balcony or patio.
You’ll need to water more and provide fertilizer
The bitter gourd will need more water when grown in containers, given the fact that it evaporates from the soil quicker. Check the moisture levels daily and give your bitter gourd plants a good soak when the soil’s top inch is dry to the touch. Once the plants start flowering, apply a liquid fertilizer every 4 weeks to encourage steady growth and abundant flowering.
If you’re growing bitter gourds in an enclosed area, remember that you will need to pollinate the plants in order to produce fruit manually.
When to harvest bitter melon
Bitter gourds can be harvested 65 or 70 days after sowing. The fruit is always harvested before it ripens, so timing it right could be tricky.
How to tell if the bitter melon is ready to pick?
The easiest way to tell if the fruit is ready to be picked is between 4 and 6 inches long (10 to 15 cm), and firm to the touch. If the bitter melon fruit feels a bit spongy or has started turning yellow, that’s a sign that it’s become too ripe. The fruit will be even more bitter than expected in such cases, with a fibrous, stringy texture.
Of course, the fruit’s size and the color is not always an indicator, depending on which hybrid you’re growing. Therefore, we recommend you always check the information on your bitter gourd seed packet to get an idea of how large the fruit can grow and when you can pick it.
How much bitter melon can I expect from a single plant?
On average, a bitter gourd plant can produce 12 or more fruits. However, the more you harvest it, the more fruit is produced. Despite its prickly appearance, bitter melon fruit is quite delicate and does not freeze well.
To store it after it’s been picked, wrap it in a paper towel and keep it in the vegetable drawer of your fridge for no more than 5 days. The longer you store bitter gourds, the more they will lose their texture and flavor, which is why we recommend eating them as soon as they’re picked.
Is bitter melon a perennial plant?
Bitter melon is typically grown as an annual plant. This means that when the harvest season is over, usually around mid-autumn, the plant can be cut down. But if you live somewhere with no chance of frost during winter, then you can grow bitter gourd as a perennial plant for up to 3 years.
– Bitter melon pests and problems
Bitter melon encounters the same types of pests and diseases as cucumbers, melons, and other gourds.
Snails, slugs, and beetles can chew their way through leaves and vines. Fungal infections, such as powdery mildew, can also affect the leaves, but they can be easily managed with a water and baking soda solution spray.
One of the main nemesis of bitter gourd is the watermelon mosaic virus. This can cause damage to both leaves and the fruit, causing them to wilt and rot. Aphids are the most common spreaders of this infection, so make sure to check the leaves, especially the young ones, regularly.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for the mosaic virus, so if you suspect that your plants might be infected, the best thing to do is remove and burn them before the infection spreads to other plants.
Bitter melon uses
Not just great to look at, bitter melon plants produce delicious fruits that are a prominent feature of many Asian dishes. On top of that, they come packed full of additional health benefits.
Let’s take a closer look.
– Cooking with bitter melon
While bitter melon can be eaten raw, it’s so much better cooked. It is cooking bitter melon dials down a lot of the bitterness, though it all depends on how it’s cooked. On the whole, it can be an acquired taste, with some people loving it and others despising it.
Preparing bitter melon
Before you get started, it’s essential to prepare your bitter melon properly. While it might look like a warty cucumber, it doesn’t share all the same features. The seeds of bitter melon are quite large and hard. As such, you’ll need to remove them before cooking, as well as the white pith, which can be astringently bitter.
The skin is edible, however, and doesn’t need to be peeled. Bitter melon can be one of the main features of numerous dishes. As such, it’s best to chop it reasonably large. The best way to cut it is to slice it lengthways, remove the seeds and pith, and then slice crescent-shaped chunks.
Parboiling bitter melon
If you’re not a huge fan of the bitterness associated with bitter melon, you can parboil it before cooking it further. This removes a lot of the bitterness but also gives it a softer texture. Generally speaking, you only need to simmer bittermelon for around 3 minutes. If you leave it for too long, it can become mushy and challenging to incorporate into stir-fries.
Stir-fried bitter melon
One of the most popular ways to eat bitter melon is to stir-fry it. This allows you to cook it to your taste, either less bitter and soft or crunchy with a stronger bitterness. You can skip the parboiling step for fans of the bitter flavor and throw it in a stir-fry raw. To cook through from raw, it’ll generally need around 3 minutes. If you have parboiled your bitter melon, it’s best to add it in the last stages of your stir-fry to avoid overcooking it.
For vegans, stir-fried bitter melon can be a dish in itself or work well with tofu. However, it’s a versatile ingredient and can be added in the late stages of various stir-fries, with pork or shrimp being popular choices.
Steamed and stuffed bitter melon
As well as stir-frying bitter melon, it can also be stuffed. This popular method sees the bitter melon cut lengthways with the seeds and pith removed. It’s then stuffed with a mix of seasoned minced pork and beans and steam for around 20 minutes.
Can you eat bitter melon leaves?
As well as the famous fruit, bitter melon leaves can also be consumed in several ways.
They can be added to curries, soups, and stir-fries in the same way as spinach, while young, tender leaves can make a tasty addition to salads. Like the fruit, cooking bitter gourd leaves reduces the bitterness.
– Medicinal uses of bitter melon
Besides making a tasty treat, bitter melon is packed full of goodness and can work wonders for your health. Both the fruit and leaves boast numerous medical properties, such as antidiabetic, anticancer, anti-inflammation, antivirus, and cholesterol-lowering effects.
Eating bitter melon will unlock numerous vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, but the most common way of extracting its goodness is brewing tea.
Typically, the leaves and shoots of bitter melon are steeped in boiling water to produce a healthy concoction that dramatically improves your immune system and ward off viruses.
Bitter melon can make an attractive addition to your garden while providing a tasty and healthy ingredient to use in the kitchen.
Growing and cooking it at home doesn’t have to be difficult either, even if you don’t enjoy a tropical climate.
Let’s go over the basics:
- Bitter melon is available in many varieties and is known by many names. However, the main types are Chinese bitter melon and Indian bitter melon (karela).
- It thrives in hot, humid subtropical climates but can be grown across the world in the right conditions.
- Germinating your bitter melon seeds indoors can get the plants off to a great start and ensure a bountiful harvest.
- As a fast-growing climbing plant, you’ll need to provide your bitter melons with plenty of space and preferably a trellis to climb.
- You can also grow bitter melon indoors, on a balcony, or in a greenhouse, but you’ll likely need to self-pollinate and choose the correct container.
- It’s best to harvest bitter melon before it fully ripens for improved flavor and texture.
Now that you know the basics, it’s time to start growing your bitter melon plants and enjoying the health benefits and tasty flavors.