Momordica - Balsam Apple, Balsam Pear, Bitter Cucumber, Bitter Melon, La-Kwa
DESCRIPTION: Momordica belongs to the cucumber family, Cucurbitaceae. M. charantia, Balsam Pear, Bitter Cucumber, La-Kwa, or Bitter Melon, is a tender, tropical perennial grown as an annual. They are luscious, high-climbing vines with slightly fuzzy stems clothed with dark green, deeply lobed leaves and yellow, dioecious (male & female organs on separate flowers) flowers. The blossoms have 5 petals and are an inch in diameter. In regions with a long growing season, these vines produce handsome, oblong, lumpy fruits with light green to greenish-white, waxy skin. When they are mature, they take on an orange hue and the skin dries and splits open to expose bright scarlet arils (tissue) surrounding the brown or white seeds. The pulp of these seeds is eaten in the Orient, but these vines are mainly grown for ornament in the U.S. The Balsam Apple, M. Balsamita, is also an article of food in the Orient, but is mainly grown as a curiosity in the U.S. The Balsam Apple is a more elegant plant than the Balsam Pear. The leaves of this vine are deeply lobed and sharply toothed and the fruits are 3 inches long and tapered at both ends. The "Apple" in Balsam Apple refers to the bright red pulp surrounding the seeds, which are seen when the mature orange rind ruptures.
POTTING: Plants should be set 2 feet apart in rich, moist soil. They should be provided with support such as a trellis, arbor, fence, or wires. In the North, the vine should face towards the west or south. You can also grow these vines in large tubs in the greenhouse. The shoots should be trained up wires or a trellis attached to the wall or roof. Another idea is to place a tripod of canes in the container and train the shoots to this. A lot of water is needed when the plants are growing actively. If the soil becomes dry, the fruits will drop. As the fruits are developing, dilute liquid fertilizer should be given twice a week. A humid atmosphere and shade from bright sunlight are necessary. Leave a few fruits on the vine to mature and split for decoration. If you want to try eating them, harvest when they are half mature and no more than 6 inches long; they taste only slightly bitter then, but older fruits can be terribly bitter and chewy.
PROPAGATION: In the South and warm West, seeds may be sown directly outside where they are to grow. In the North, seeds should be started inside, 6 to 8 weeks before the frost-free date. They should be planted in well-drained pots filled with a sandy, seed soil. The bottom of the container should have a layer of broken crocks for drainage and a thin layer of rough siftings of compost to prevent the soil from washing down. Set the seeds on their sides and cover with a ½-inch of soil; moisten the soil with a fine spray. The seedlings should be transplanted to the garden when the soil is warm and the weather is frost-free, or they may remain in a greenhouse and cared for as described in the potting section.
VARIETIES: M. Charantia; M. Balsamita.
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