Snake gourd, also known as snake squash or serpent gourd, is a type of gourd grown for its elongated, edible fruit.
Besides being a tasty and healthy treat, it has a unique appearance in the garden, with what looks like several snakes hanging from its vines and wispy white flowers.
At first glance, it can seem like a hands-on plant to grow, but in this guide, our experts explain how to make the most of this unique vegetable in easy steps.
What is snake gourd?
Its iconic fruit gives this plant’s name: long, slender gourds, sometimes curved or even twisted in spirals, which resemble serpents hanging from the vine. As the fruit matures, its skin hardens develops an intense red color, and the flesh usually acquires a gelatinous consistency.
However, serpent gourd is typically picked before it ripens, when the fruit is firm but not hard, without seeds, and when the flesh has a mild taste.
Where does snake gourd come from?
Snake gourd is native to the tropical and subtropical regions of South and Southeast Asia, but it also grows in Australia, western Africa, and Latin America.
This vining plant can grow up to 6.5 feet long (2 meters), producing large, lobed leaves and showy, fragrant white flowers. The snake gourd flower has long, curling ‘hairs’ at the edge of the petals, and it closes during the day, only to unfurl its petals in the evening.
Snake gourd is a staple vegetable in Chinese and Indian Traditional medicine, especially in Ayurveda, an ancient holistic healing system. It is also used in cooking, where its mild, cucumber-like flavor pairs well with dishes such as soups, curries, and even stir-fry.
In Africa, the mature fruit’s red pulp is used as a substitute for a tomato, so locals often refer to this vegetable as the snake tomato. There are also ornamental uses for snake gourd, mostly the mature, red fruits used for a rustic decor when dried.
Types of snake gourd
There are two varieties of snake gourd, both of which are, essentially, the same species:
- Trichosanthes cucumerina var. cucumerina: the ‘original,’ wild variety, producing smaller fruit, usually green, small and pointy;
- Trichosanthes cucumerina var. anguina: the cultivated variety, which produces the iconic long and slender fruits; some botanical authorities prefer using Trichosanthes anguina to refer to the wild variety rather than the cultivated ones, so opinions are mixed even among experts.
In the case of the cultivated variety, there are two different types of snake melon: one that is grown for ornamental purposes and commonly used in cooking.
The ornamental snake gourd plant produces very long fruits (often over 40 inches / 1 meter long) with thick, hard skin.
The best snake gourd for cooking
Snake gourd that is cultivated for cooking and medicinal uses (Trichosanthes cucumerina var. anguina) typically has green skin, with a waxy feel to the touch, ranges in size from 6 to 17 inches (15 to 45 cm), and can either grow long and thin, or short and a bit squat. Different countries have different varieties.
Snake gourds native to India have light green skin with watermelon-like green stripes and usually grow up to 12 inches (30 cm) long. In Thailand, snake gourds are longer, with slender fruit that can grow as long as 31 inches (78 cm) and skin that is either white or light green.
There are several vegetables you will find listed under some version of the name ‘snake gourd’. Although they are all related to Trichosanthes cucumerina, their fruit is very different in appearance, which is why it’s best to know what to expect.
Here are the three main “fake” snake gourds:
- Chinese snake gourd (Trichosanthes kirilowii)
- Japanese snake gourd (Trichosanthes pilosa)
- Parwal (Trichosanthes dioica)
Let’s take a closer look at each.
– Chinese snake gourd
– Japanese snake gourd
Instead of long, slender, snake-like gourds, parwal is more similar in appearance to small watermelons: the fruit is oval and often pointy at the end, up to 6 inches (15 cm) long, with a hard skin that’s usually dark green with white stripes. In India, you will also find parwal under the name of ‘green potato.’
All the ‘fake snake gourds’ we mentioned above are edible, with only mild taste differences. But if you’re looking for the authentic snake gourd vegetable, keep an eye out for these familiar names, which refer to very different plants.
How to grow snake gourd
There are several snake gourd hybrids you can grow in your garden. They taste the same and have the same growing conditions, and the only difference between them is the skin color and the shape and size of the fruit. Growing snake gourd is very easy once the plants are established. A plentiful harvest needs some preparation carried out in advance, however.
Let’s take a look at what you’ll need.
– Germinating snake gourd seeds
The serpent gourd seeds have a tough outer layer, similar to pumpkin or bitter melon seeds. The shell has small dimples on the side, and it often looks cracked and dented. However, it’s a lot harder than it seems, which is why you will need to prepare the seeds in advance.
1. Soak the seeds
Before sowing your snake gourd seeds, we recommend soaking them in water for 6 hours. Alternatively, you can spread them out between two kitchen roll layers and use a spray pump to water them regularly, keeping the paper moist. The seeds should be ready to sow after 24 hours.
2. Plant in seedling pots
After the seeds have been soaked, you can transplant them to the soil. Although you can directly sow snake gourd outdoors, our preferred method is to get the plants started indoors in compostable seedling pots. This way, you will know exactly which seeds have sprouted and which ones haven’t, and you will also have more control over their growing conditions. If you live somewhere with cold, long winters, it will give you a head start in the gardening season.
To start your snake gourd seeds indoors, you will need several compostable seedling pots and a garden soil mix. Fill each pot with soil, and place one seed in each pot. The seeds should be sown at a depth of 0.5 inches (1.3 cm). Water each pot, and keep them in a warm, sunny place. Snake gourd is a tropical plant and will need around 80°F (27°C) to germinate.
3. Transplant outside
After 10 days or so, you will start noticing the first snake gourd seedlings. Continue watering them and monitoring the temperature until each plant has at least two sets of leaves. Then, you can start planting them outdoors.
When transplanting seedlings, we suggest leaving them in their compostable pots. This will minimize the damage to the fragile roots and stems and prevent any transplant shock. The pots will decompose in the soil in the weeks to follow.
– Growing snake gourd outdoors
There are 3 main things to remember before planting snake gourd in your garden:
- This is a tropical plant and will need plenty of light, warmth, and water.
- Since it is a vining plant, you will need to provide it with a trellis.
- Pollination is needed to produce fruit, and it’s best to do it manually.
Before planting outside, ensure that the outdoor temperatures do not drop below 68°F (20°C). Snake gourd is a warm-season crop, and its ideal temperature range is between 80°F and 95°F (27°C to 35°C).
Start by picking the right place in your garden to plant your snake gourd. Make sure to select a spot where your plants can get at least 6 hours of sunlight per day and where you have space to set up some trellises. If you don’t have trellises, you can also grow snake gourd along a fence or make a support system using stakes and wire fencing. These plants can grow up to 2 meters tall, so they can easily reach that height.
Can you grow snake gourds on the ground without any support systems? In theory, yes, but it’s not ideal. Snake gourd fruit can grow very long, typically around 12 to 16 inches (30 to 40 cm). Ornamental snake gourds can be allowed to grow even longer, often more than 3 feet (90 cm).
By allowing the plants to vine on trellises and other types of support, you will enable the fruit to develop naturally by hanging. Snake gourds grown on the ground will often rot and mold, and the fruit is more likely to be eaten by pests and insects, such as beetles, ants, and slugs.
Snake gourd isn’t too picky about the type of soil used. The best choice is a well-draining soil, with a pH ranging from 5.8 to 6.5, with compost incorporated in the mix. This plant needs moist but not damp soils, which can cause root rot and wilt. So if your soil has poor drainage, make sure to use soil amendments to loosen it up, such as bark, peat moss or leaf mold.
4. Spacing, watering and fertilizing
Plant your snake gourds at least 3 feet (90 cm) apart. These plants grow very fast and need plenty of space for healthy development. Water regularly, and avoid letting the soil become dry or waterlogged, killing the plants. Add mulch to the plants’ base to retain soil moisture, and use a liquid fertilizer once a month. However, avoid nitrogen-rich fertilizers, as they will encourage leaf production and fewer flowers and fruit.
Prune the vines regularly, especially after the first month, to encourage lateral shoots and flowering vines. On average, snake gourd takes 45 days after planting to reach maturity. After 3 to 4 weeks after planting, you will notice the flowers make an appearance. That’s a sign that you need to focus on the next important step in ensuring a successful harvest: pollination.
– Pollinating snake gourd flowers
Snake gourd produces small, white flowers with slender tendrils at the edge of the petals. The male and female flowers are separate, and you can tell the female ones apart by the long lump on the stem.
Insects typically carry out pollination, but there’s a catch: the flowers only open in the evening, which means you can’t rely on insects such as bees or butterflies to do the job. For a successful harvest, you will need to pollinate them yourself manually.
How do you pollinate snake gourd flowers? Snap off the male flowers and gently rub them on the female ones to transfer the pollen. It’s best to do this in the evening when the flowers are open wide. If pollination is successful, you will see that the female flower starts to wilt after a few days, and the lump on the stem begins to grow.
– When to harvest snake gourd
You can harvest your snake gourds after 2 or 3 weeks after you notice that the fruits have started growing. You can find many hybrids on the market, each producing fruit of varying girth and length. There isn’t a formula set in stone for what size the gourds should be at before they’re ready to be picked. When in doubt, harvest them as early as 2 weeks old, when the skin is firm to the touch but not tough.
Unlike many other vegetables, snake gourds are harvested before they mature. If you leave them too long, the skin will toughen, and the flesh will become fibrous and gelatinous. In general, if you notice that the skin is starting to turn red or orange, that’s a sign that your snake gourds are becoming ripe. You can still eat them at that stage, but the taste and their uses in cooking will be different.
Snake gourds don’t last long after they’ve been harvested. We always recommend eating them on the same day as you’ve picked them, but if you have too many, you can cover them in plastic wrap and keep them in the fridge for 7 to 10 days.
– How to grow snake gourd in a small place
If you don’t have a lot of space in your garden, growing snake gourds can be tricky but not impossible. Provide them with plenty of light, warmth and water, and you can even grow them in containers on your balcony.
1. Supporting the vines
The main challenge with growing snake gourds in a small place is giving them the right support. These are vining plants that love to climb and usually grow as tall as 6 feet (1.8 meters). If you’re in a pinch for vertical space, you can encourage them to vine horizontally.
Snip the younger vines to stimulate lateral growth, and use string to tie them along the trellis or railing. However, you will still need to provide some form of support at least 3 feet (90 cm) tall so that the hanging fruit has plenty of space to develop.
2. Growing snake gourd in a container
To grow snake gourds in a container, start by germinating the seeds using our germination guide above. Pick a large pot with drainage holes at the bottom. The bigger the pot, the better — we recommend one that’s at least 10 gallons (38 liters).
Fill the container with potting soil mix, and add some bark to improve the drainage. Place one seedling in each pot. You can grow up to 2 plants per pot, but they will be a bit crowded and won’t develop as well, so we don’t recommend it unless you have very, very little space.
3. Caring for potted snake gourds
Potted snake gourds will need to be watered more frequently than the ones growing in the garden, so check the moisture levels and water twice a week, if required. Make sure they receive at least 6 hours of sun per day and have plenty of warmth.
Last but not least, don’t forget about pollination. This is especially important if you’re growing snake gourd in containers in a greenhouse or on your balcony. Without pollination, you won’t have any fruit, so take the time to do this manually in the evening.
– Common pests and problems
Snake gourds encounter the same kind of pests and diseases as other gourds. Keep an eye out for snails, slugs, leaf beetles, and caterpillars, which will eat the leaves and vines. We recommend avoiding insecticides. Instead, pick them by hand, and throw them in a bucket of soapy water.
Aphids are common on young vines, but you can remove them by blasting them off with water from a garden hose. Powdery mildew can also damage the plants, but a regular application of water and baking soda mix can keep it at bay.
Uses for snake gourd
Snake gourd is a popular vegetable in eastern and southeastern Asia, both in cooking and its health benefits. It has no fats, and it’s rich in fiber, zinc, magnesium, vitamins C, A, and B6, and it’s also packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatories.
In traditional medicine, snake gourd is also used to detox the body, help with respiratory and liver problems, aid digestion, and heal skin irritations.
– Cooking with snake gourd
Snake gourd has many uses in cooking, depending on how ripe it is. Young, immature gourds are crunchy, with a firm, white pulp, no seeds, and a mild taste that’s very similar to cucumber. They are excellent in stir-fries, Thai or Indian curries, cooked in tempura-style batter, or even turned into chutney and pickles. Their mild flavor pairs well with potent aromas, such as ginger, garlic, cumin seeds, chillies, turmeric and coriander.
Can you eat ripe snake gourd?
You can also eat snake gourds when they are ripe, and it’s a common practice in India. However, the preparation and uses will vary. Mature gourds are red or orange, with hard skin and fibrous flesh, filled with a red mass of seeds and a noticeably bitter taste. They also have an unpleasant smell, but luckily, it fades out when cooked.
To prepare ripe snake gourds, cut them lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Remove the seeds from the red, gelatinous pulp coating and throw them out, as they’re not safe for human consumption. The pulp can be used as a substitute for tomato sauce, and the red or orange flesh can be blended into soups, such as the traditional Indian sambar or dahl.
Snake gourd substitutes
If you can’t find fresh snake gourds, you can use bitter gourd (bitter melon) or okra as a substitute. The flavor will be different, but the crunchy texture and consistency are similar.
Snake gourd is a visually unique plant
to grow and create a new talking point in even the most exuberant garden. Growing it can appear tricky, but if you stick to this guide, you can’t go wrong!
Let’s go over the basics:
- Many plants are often called snake gourd or even snakegourd, and while they’re mostly related, they’re not all the same. The real variety to seek out is trichosanthes cucumerina var. Anguina, which is the cultivated version.
- It’s best to germinate snake gourd seeds inside before transplanting outside, and the seeds will need to be soaked first.
- Snake gourd is a warm-season plant and favors at least 6 hours of sunlight a day and temperatures between 80°F and 95°F (27°C to 35°C).
- You’ll need to self-pollinate the flowers as they close during the day, making it difficult for insects to do the job for you.
- Most snake gourd varieties should be harvested before they ripen, typically after 2 weeks of growth, before the skin begins to turn red.
So, if you want to try planting the stunning snake gourd, grab a pack of seeds from a reputable seller and start sowing!