Bitter Gourd, Balsam Pear: Pharmacy On A Fence

by Green Deane

in Beverage, Flowers, Fruits/Berries, Greens/Pot Herb, Medicinal, Plants, Toxic to Pets/livestock, Vegetable, Vines

Bitter Gourd, edible only when green and cooked

Bitter Melon, Bitter Gourd, Balsam Pear: Momordica Charantia

If the Balsam Pear did not exist a pharmaceutical company would invent it.  In fact, there have been some ten studies published this past year about it, the latest as of this writing in February 2008 in the Journal of Food Biochemistry about its potential in diabetes treatment.

A very common, bitter vegetable in Asian cuisine,  the Balsam Pear, Momordica charantia,  is a natural drug store for diabetics and others. It’s not a pear at all but a fruiting gourd and vine that smells like an old, well-used gym shoe. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Young, green fruit are edible cooked

The warty gourd is edible when green (and cooked) but turns toxic/medicinal when orange ripe. It then splits characteristically into three parts, revealing red arils (fleshy seed covers).  The ripe seeds inside the arils and orange flesh of the gourd are toxic and can make one violently lose fluids from both ends, and induce abortions. The red arils around the seeds, however, are edible. And note this: The arils are 96% lycopene, which gives them their color. Just remember to spit out the seed from each aril.

Fruit is toxic when yellow or orange

M. charantia is found Connecticut south to Florida, west to Texas, also Puerto Rico and the Hawaiian Islands. Incidentally, the bitter melon has twice the potassium of bananas and is also rich in vitamin A and C.

The Latin genus name, Momordica, (mo-MOR-dee-ka)  means “to bite,” and refers to the jagged edges of the leaves, which appear as if they have been bitten. Charantia (char-AN-tee-ah) the species’ name, comes from Greek meaning beautiful flower.  It’s native to tropical regions of the world though no one knows where it came from originally, best guess Old World Tropics. Gray’s four-inch thick Manual of Botany, started in 1850 and revised in 1950, makes no mention of M. charantia in the United States but it is currently a serious crop weed in Florida and to 21 other crops around the world, bananas to soybeans. It’s a late comer to Florida or Gray was in the dark about it. In the Amazon, and as far away as India, it is used very much by local populations for food and medicine.  Apparently a  dynamic chemical factory, the M. charantia is being tested for treatment against cancer — leukemia in particular —  AIDS, as an analgesic, and to moderate insulin resistance. It is often called the vegetable insulin. It does not increase insulin secretion but “speeds up carbohydrate use of the cells by affecting membrane lipids.” Seems like the smelly gym shoe hanging on the fence has a great future. But, it is not for everyone: Don’t eat the vegetable if you’re hypoglycemic or pregnant. In diabetics it can lower blood sugar too effectively. It also reduces fertility in men and women.  And, it contains vicine: That can cause favism in people who have a variant glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase. (I presume if you don’t know what that is you don’t have it. Favism is a severe reaction to fava beans and or their pollen. Occurs most often in men of Mediterranean background.)

Red coating on the seeds is edible raw, but not the seeds

Cultivated versions of the M. charantia, also called Bitter Gourd or Wild Balsam Apple, are found in most Asian markets, and they, too, smell like an old gym shoe. The odor, thankfully, almost all goes away when cooked and the bitterness moderates, but does not go away completely. If you are not yet brave enough to pick your own, you can buy some or grow it yourself. There are many varieties and numerous recipes are on the Internet. The M. charantia is indeed bitter. Some cut up the vegetable and soak it in water, or salted water and or blanch it  to reduce the bitterness.

Bitter Gourd leaf and flower

While I have never seen an Asian family picking M. charantia off local fences here in Florida, I have seen many Hispanic families doing so.  Dr. Julia Morton, a plant professor in south Florida,  says besides the green fruit, the young leaves when cooked and drained are also edible and nutritious, with iron, phosphorous, calcium and vitamin C. I have never managed to get past the locker room bouquet to toss ‘em in a pot. The ripe fruit pulp has been used as a soap substitute, which should give you some idea of the flavor. In India and Africa the cooked leaves are canned like spinach. The fragrant flowers can be used as seasoning when cooking.

Incidentally, if you have a glut of green Bitter Gourds, you can slice them, partially boil them with salted water, then dry them, sun or otherwise. They will last for several months. You can then fry them and use as you like. Also, drinking the fresh bitter juice is recommended by some naturopaths. That ain’t going to be easy, it’s really bitter…. much easier to tell someone to do it than do it yourself. Also there is one report that drinking vine juice killed a child.

REMEMBER: No part of the Momordica charantia is ever to be eaten raw, except for the red arils (and remember to spit the seeds out.)  No part, other than the arils, is ever to be eaten when ripe, which is when it is turning from green to yellow to orange. Do not eat the yellow or orange fruit raw or cooked. It is toxic/medicinal. Also, the green fruit is suspected in the poisoning of dogs and pigs.

Relatives: Momordica balsamina, which has longer spines on the fruit and can ripen to red, grows only in St. Lucie County in Florida and only a smattering of places in the southern U.S.  M. balsamina fruit can be pickled or after soaking used as a cooked vegetable. Young shoots and tendrils are boiled as a green. The seeds are eaten in cooked young fruit.  Momordica cochinchinensis produces a huge round fruit that is red when ripe. Young fruit boiled, not as bitter as M. charantia. Momordica dioica, small and roundish is more esteemed than the rest. It is not bitter but sweet. Fruits, shoots, leaves and roots are boiled for food. There are also at least seven commercial cultivars of the Momordica gourds

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

IDENTIFICATION: Momordica charantia: A slender, climbing annual vine to 18 feet with long-stalked leaves and yellow flowers where the leaf meets the stem. Young fruit emerald green turning to orange when ripe. At maturity, fruit splits into three irregular parts that curl backwards showing many reddish-brown or white seeds encased in scarlet arils.

TIME OF YEAR: Fruit, summer and fall in warm climates, fall in northern climes.

ENVIRONMENT: Love to climb, found in hammocks, disturbed sites, turf and ornamental landscapes, and citrus groves . It seems to be the most common vine on chain link fences in Florida.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: None of it ripe except the arils. Boiled green fruit (including seeds) leaves and shoots, boiled twice. Or, cut open and remove seeds and fiber and parboil.  Ripe parts toxic are too bitter to eat.  (An adult can swallow hole two ripe seed and not have much distress.) Young leaves and shoots are boiled and eaten as a potherb. Flowers used as seasoning.

HERB BLURB

Herbalists say the charantia has long been used to treat diabetes and a host of other ailments from arthritis to jaundice.

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Cara March 29, 2017 at 12:33

The Jamaican name is Cerasee. I once, accidentally, gave some leaves to my rabbits and it did not seem to bother them, though I didn’t repeat. Purportedly, drinking tea of the leaves lets you pass a marijuana drug test, but I can’t verify.

Bees also love the flowers, which is a reason to let them grow. Just pick the fruits to control.

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Virginia Graves February 17, 2017 at 16:06

My grandmother raised these vines when I was little. I think she lost the seeds when she moved. I have been unable to find seeds. I would love to have some and willing to pay postage. My brothers use to throw the pods at the house to hear the pods pop. Grandmother was always after the twins. I live in California and do not remember the vine being a problem. These comments habeen so interesting. Thank you all so much.

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Jennifer garrison April 17, 2017 at 09:31

My grandfather raised also… He put the cut pieces in Wich hazel and used as a rub..Found seeds on ebay ..They ship from Thailand.

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Brenda February 13, 2017 at 21:57

I have it in my fence and garden overgrown i want to get rid of it is some special way to handle it

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Green Deane February 14, 2017 at 17:00

Eat it is the only solution I know.

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Jeanne January 3, 2017 at 20:19

Have you heard of soaking the fruit in whiskey and then using it on sores? My mother had some, we were from Illinois and it was used by her family for generations but no longer had any more available. They would grow it. It would be used as a drawing agent, you placed on wound and bandaged and the next day, the fruit would be dried out and the sore would be better

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Cindy pike March 29, 2017 at 02:14

Yes, our neighbor did this and my grandparents were glad to always have some available in case someone needed it.

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jawana November 7, 2016 at 10:29

I have an outbreak of yeast coming out of my skin causing white blotchy patches that itch sometimes. A neighbor of mine from Honduras recommended me to drink it as a tea. How would I prepare it? And how do I make it taste better?

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Green Deane November 14, 2016 at 16:41

You can collect it from the wild or buy it in West Indian stores. As for taste… it tastes like a rubber gym shoe.

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Jackie September 16, 2016 at 23:42

I’m glad I found what this weed is. My friend from Jamaica ask me if he could have some for his mother, he called it another name. She use it for high blood presser. So I look for it, not knowing the name, and I tell you its’ like Gods’ sent. My blood sugar is out- of -control. The first thing I see is, this weed is good for people with diabetes. I’m going outside and get some of the leaves wash it and boil it I’m going to drink it and pray that this will help me. I see the orange melon but not the green. So I’m kind of confuse about picking and cooking them. Please let me know if its okay to eat. I see the yellow flowers and I will use it for seasoning . Thanks again for the info, I’m very excited.

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Green Deane September 18, 2016 at 22:03

Within my area of knowledge I know the green fruit cooked is edible. The orange fruit is eaten medicinally but that is beyond my area of expertise.

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owen wilson October 8, 2016 at 12:20

its other name is cerassee

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Pa September 9, 2016 at 00:04

I’m Asian and LOVE bitter melon. But I stopped eating it for a while bc I developed a condition where my insulin was so high it was causing blood sugar crashes. So one day I consumed a lot of cooked bitter melon and it immediately brought my blood sugar down too low. I was pretty scared, so have been reframing from eating it until three months ago. I made a dish with beef and sour cherry tomatoes (stir fried) and it was awesome! I ate in moderate amounts this time and was fine. My husband and I usually think it’s a plus when the bitter melon is just turning a bit yellow, that means that it’s sweetened up a bit and less bitter. We never consume the seeds. In our Hmong culture people have been eating it for centuries, and there has never been a warning about it causing miscarriages. Although I know bitter melon has that warming in India and America. You can chop the green mature bitter melon into slices and freeze it. Though it carries a lot of water when you thaw it, you can squish it out like frozen spinach and use it. It retains its shape.

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Kathleen Matthews August 17, 2016 at 08:56

I have had a similar experience when using a tea made with the vine for insect bites. I do a lot of gardening in central Florida. I frequently get bites from spiders and other insects. I was introduced to the tea by a lady whose grandmother was from Mexico. She said it was a common remedy for insect bites and itchy problems. I decided to try it myself after several days of trying benadryl, vinegar, alcohol, witch hazel, lidocaine, etc. to stop the awful itching of some (what I suspect were) spider bites on my neck area. I tied a big handful of the vine in cheese cloth and boiled it in a gallon of water, then turned the heat off and let it steep until cool. I poured it into a clean jug and put it in the refrigerator. It will develop bacteria if it isn’t refrigerated. Anyway, it worked like a miracle when I applied it to the bites before bedtime. The next day the itching started again after my shower so I applied some more and once again the itching stopped. I am now bringing it to my gardening friends. I wonder what compounds in the plant could be responsible for this result?

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tarp July 16, 2016 at 12:18

I grew bitter-gourd from seed this year. I have been eating Green Skin bitter-gourd raw and cooked. I have eaten yellow fleshed bitter-gourd, the red pulp around the seeds, and immature seeds raw too. I didn’t get sick.
I have been eating it pretty frequently too. But I certainly don’t want to get sick, or worse, make my family sick.

By the way. Green Skin bitter gourd is an open pollinated bitter-gourd and the color of the unripe vegetable too. Just to clear up any confusion.
.
Thank you for the informative page on bitter-melon. I will still probably eat a few slices of raw bitter-gourd. But avoid the ripe vegetable.
Thanks again.

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pat wright February 21, 2016 at 12:15

My grandmother grew these in a bottle ,filled bottle with whiskey and used as tonic and a rub for scrape and small cuts. I have grown these and done the same for several diabetics.

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Carin Bruck December 3, 2015 at 14:18

I noticed this vine growing inside my bougainvillea tree. Should I be worried about my (outdoor) cats eating it and poisoning themselves?

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Green Deane December 3, 2015 at 16:43

No, cats tend to leave it along and it is mostly toxic to dogs. Daylilies however are extremely toxic to cats. The pollen on their fur can destroy their kidneys.

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Nancy Price November 22, 2015 at 13:42

An elderly friend mixed the flesh of the (yellow/orange) gourd after the pods broke open with rubbing alcohol, making a great elixir for wasp and bee stings. I got stung 5 times this past summer and the result from when I used it and when I didn’t were amazing – I am growing it now to make more elixir later.

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lola cobb November 30, 2015 at 01:15

I would like to know if you could be able to send me some I can buy some on let me know how I can get a plant seed

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John Mood February 15, 2016 at 10:47

There are a number of vendors on eBay (based in China, mind you – shipping takes a while) that sell packets of seeds under the item name “Balsam Pear Seed Bitter Melon”.

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Dianne Alexander July 3, 2016 at 16:21

I will be happy to send you all you want…free …..just email me to work out details.it’s growing wild on our fences in south fl.

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DEE GODEFOY July 15, 2016 at 12:13

I would like to start growing them. Please let me know.

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Leona N Roberts September 21, 2015 at 23:54

http://article.sciencepublishinggroup.com/pdf/10.11648.j.ijnfs.20150401.21.pdf
Been growing the small, wild bitter gourds/melons that are shown in your pic. Purportedly better healthwise than culinary varieties which are more common in a plethora of multi cultural dishes across the Hawaiian Islands. I started eating them whenever I felt a herpes outbreak coming on. No more outbreaks!
I pick the partially and fully ripe bright orange melons daily. Rinse & accumulate in an open bowl in the refrigerator until I have enough. Best cooked in non-reactive cookware using non-metal utensils, kind of like cooking with tomato which is also a good source of the carotenoid Lycopene. The key is to flip gently but never stir the bitter melon while cooking or the bitterness goes ballistic! After a while, the bitter taste becomes somewhat addictive as IPA drinkers may attest.
Quick Saute
1 cup ripe wild bitter melons cut or torn lengthwise
handful of sliced onion
2-4 cloves minced garlic
1/2 tablespoon butter, sesame, coconut oil or oil of your choice
Saute everything (including any optional additions) except the bitter melon on medium heat until hot & fragrant; Season with salt & pepper to taste or use a favorite or momentary fancy: curry powder, Garam Masala, white wine & basil, sherry, dash of beer, shoyu, lime & cilantro…. the possibilities are endless.
Add the bitter melon and saute just until wilted, flipping occasionally, but gently, and NEVER STIR OR THEY GET VERY BITTER.

Every good dish has seasonal options like a big toe of peeled, chopped ginger is an excellent addition! More:
Julienne vegetables, tofu chunks, shrimp, chopped tomato, peppers, cooked chicken, pork, fish…
Also great in chicken soup made with ginger, onion & tomato with the melon added at the end.
If you don’t mind the crunch, eat seeds and all for optimum health benefit.
Refrigerate leftovers promptly but never in metal or foil.
Aloha!

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Green Deane September 22, 2015 at 14:12

You eat orange ripe ones coooked? What about unripe green ones?

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Leona N Roberts September 22, 2015 at 19:00

Yes! They’re sweet, delicious and full of health benefits.
Bitters are woefully missing from modern diets.
The green ones are delish too but not as sweet or as bitter and the seeds aren’t red. To me, that means the green are lacking Lycopene so I assume also likely to have less of the phytochemicals the tasty. bitter morsels can offer at their ripened state. I cook with both!
The link included in my original post cites a lot of research studies, especially concerning cancer and diabetes. So far, it’s the most informationally accurate and factual publication I’ve found on the health topic of bitter melon/gourd online.
Nature provides us with what we need.
So many are suffering from health issues across this great nation.
Nobody ever thinks they’re eating they’re way to ill health and that the best solution is to eat their way out!
This lovely little bitter gourd is growing like a weed, readily available to people heading for or stuck on the hamster wheel of drugs associated with the economics of modern medicine.
As with all foods, I wouldn’t recommend more than a small handful of ripe bitter melon per day.
On occasion, I’ve eaten more than half a cup during a meal. The bitterness permeates your body, lingering on the tongue for a couple days! I suppose that’s why it’s the one-time dosage for parasite problems, yet another usage in the bitter melon folk medicine category that, to my knowledge, remains untested, without modern research to back it up.
As with all things, MODERATION IS THE KEY!
Aloha & Mahalo (Thank you)!
The miracle of sharing feedback, info, ideas, discussion… is one of the best ways to foster education!
Keep up the GREAT SITE!
Peace, happiness and good health to all!

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Mandy Yen Luu August 22, 2016 at 13:57

I have eaten the ripe orange as well cooked, and even heard of people eating the green and red raw. What do you think of this article that said when bitter melons turned ripe, they are toxic? Why is it toxic, based on what, the chemicals changed when they turn ripe?

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Gloria Schwazenhag June 24, 2016 at 11:07

Thanks very much for your experience with the bitter gourd. Also for the link. I have this is my yard and had read not very positive things about it. Now to get some, I will have to compete with some critter that is gutting them

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Karen September 7, 2015 at 16:00

I live in Charlotte County Florida–I have climbing and trailing vines and am now seeing bright orange pods with bright red seeds. Is this the balsamina or the charanchia? It is very invasive. This is first year I have seen the orange pods (flowers). How do I destroy them (seed pods) as I pull this plant?
Thanks.

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