Bitter Gourd

The Scientific name of Bitter Gourd is Momordica charantia, is a tropical and subtropical vine of the family Cucurbitaceae, widely grown in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean for its edible fruit. Bitter gourd is a vining plant. It has deeply lobed leaves and grows in a fashion similar to squash, cucumbers, and watermelon producing vines. The fruit shifts in color from green to yellow to orange as it ripens and over-ripens. The flesh has a watery, crunchy texture, similar to a cucumber.



Its many varieties differ substantially in the shape and bitterness of the fruit. It is also known as bitter melon, bitter cucumber, balsam-pear, bitter apple, or bitter squash. This vegetable is also called karela in India, nigauri in Japan, goya in Okinawa, ampalaya in the Philippines, and ku-gua throughout China.


Table of Contents


Height(Avg)

6 - 7 feet


Approximate pH

5.5 - 7.0


Types and Varieties of Bitter Gourd


There are several varieties of bitter gourd, but the two most common are Chinese bitter gourd and Indian bitter gourd. The Chinese variety more closely resembles a pale green cucumber with crimped, bumpy skin. The Indian variety has narrow, tapered ends and sharp, angled ridges all over its surface. The differences between these varieties are mostly visual, and both offer similar flavor and health benefits.


Bitter melons native to India have a narrow surface with pointed ends and are covered with triangular “teeth” and ridges. Bitter melons native to China are oblong with blunt ends and have a gently undulating, warty surface. The types of bitter gourd include:



White-Fruited Types of Bitter Melon


White varieties are some of the most striking.

  • 'Taiwan White' has white skin and flesh.

  • Hybrid 'White Pearl' has tender, slightly bitter fruit used in stir-fry, salads and soups. The developing fruits are protected by a paper sleeve open at the bottom end to minimize sun damage and scratches.


  • 'Beauty Winner' is a hybrid that is nearly white, with good flavor and texture. The plant is vigorous and produces prolific fruit from 55 days after sowing to the end of the growing season.



Green-Fruited Types of Bitter Melon

  • 'Taiwan Large' has green skin, white flesh, and 12-inch-long fruits that can weigh 1 pound.

  • 'Large Top' has a broader square stem end, dark green skin and is a vigorous, rain-resistant cultivar.

  • Two small-fruited green cultivars developed in Thailand are 'Baby Doll' and 'Small Baby.'

  • Another Thailand hybrid is 'Bangkok Large' with glossy green skin and large fruits.

  • Two improved types of Indian bitter melons with green fruits are 'Pusa Do Mausami' and 'Priya.'


Tubercled Types of Bitter Melon


Some of the most visually interesting bitter melon varieties are ​tubercled​, or "warty" in appearance.

  • 'India Star' is 4 to 6 inches long and studded with teeth and short spines. The thick white flesh of this variety is popular in India, Thailand and Southeastern Asia.

  • 'India Long Green' is covered with many green teeth on the skin.

  • 'India Green Queen' has dark green skin with sharp, scattered tubercles.

  • The Indian variety 'MDU 1' is whitish-green and covered in warts.

  • 'Preethi' has whitish fruits ornamented with spines.


Long-Fruited Types of Bitter Melon

  • 'Japan Long' produces 12- to 13-inch-long dark green fruits, which should be harvested while young.


  • Fruits of 'India Long White' grow from 8 to 12 inches long.

  • 'Jumbo TH' is a hybrid with fruits that weigh 1 pound or more and measure 12 inches long. It is suited to grow in subtropical areas that have less humidity than tropical areas.

  • Improved hybrids from India include 'Coimbatore Long' and 'Priya.'


Spindle-Shaped Types of Bitter Melon


Shaped like tops or spindles used for spinning yarn, these cultivars have a rounded stem end and pointed bottom.

  • 'Hong Kong Green' is popular in Hong Kong, Guangzhou (Canton), China and Southeastern Asia.

  • 'Japan Green Spindle' has a medium-sized fruit widely grown in Japan and tropical Asia. Medium-sized fruit are harvested when young and tender.


  • The Indian cultivar 'Arka Harit' has short spindle-shaped fruit with smooth glossy green skin and has vertical ribbing and thick flesh.

  • 'Konkan Tara' has prickles on its skin and keeps well for seven to eight days after harvest.


Planting Bitter Gourds


Planting time: Bitter melons are a warm-season crop and are best suited for growing in tropical and subtropical heat and humidity. Grow bitter melons where daytime temperatures average between 75 and 80°F (24-31°C). Plant bitter melons in late spring or early summer. Sow seed outdoors or set out transplants no sooner than two to three weeks after all danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed to at least 60 to 65°F (15-18°C).


Site: Bitter melons grow best in hot and humid climates. Choose a warm, sunny location—at least 6 hours each day–to plant. Plant bitter melons in compost-rich, well-drained soil with a pH ranging from 5.5 to 6.7. Prepare growing beds in advance of planting by adding aged compost and aged manure. Bitter melons can tolerate less desirable sandy- or siltly-loam soil but good drainage is essential.


Planting and spacing: Sow seeds in holes about half-inch deep (1.25 cm) and spaced 12 inches (30 cm) apart. Sow two seeds in each hole. Seeds germinate in 8 to 10 days, though low and high temperatures and soil too dry or too wet can slow germination. Vigorous plants trained on a trellis or fence can be spaced 9 to 10 feet (2.7-3 meters) apart. Plants allowed to sprawl on the ground should be grown on straw or plastic mulch to prevent fruits from resting on moist soil where they might rot.


Trellising can reduce diseases and make harvesting easier. Place a trellis 6 feet (1.8 meters) high and wide or slightly more next to each plant. When the vine grows to the top of its trellis, prune or pinch away all lateral branches from the soil up to the 10th node. This will stimulate the upper branches to grow and produce a higher yield. Prune laterals from 2 to 3 feet long (.6-.9 meters) and prune away the growing tip when it reaches the top of the trellis. As a result, the plant will produce a greater number of flowers and fruit sooner.

Fruit grown from a trellis will grow longer and straighter than those grown on the ground.


Water and feeding: Keep bitter melon planting beds evenly moist; regular water is essential for fruit development and growth. Aged compost will feed melon plants. You can also add a slow release organic fertilizer such as 5-10-10 around plants early in the season. Side-dress plants with aged compost during the growing season to add nutrients and to help retain moisture in the soil. To give plants a boost water with compost or comfrey tea every third week during the growing season.


Growing bitter gourd in pot


1. Find a warm sunny spot on your terrace.


2. Use organically rich, sandy or loamy well drained soil. A mixture of cow dung and compost will also do wonders for the plant.


3. You can use the bitter gourd seeds from any ripe bitter gourd you picked up from the vegetable market. Just make sure to use only the seeds that are fully formed. You can also use seeds from a previous crop, or buy them from your local nursery. If there is a red coating on the seeds, remove it. If necessary, you can soak the seeds overnight in water before sowing to speed up germination.


4. Make holes about half inch deep in the soil and drop the seeds into them. You can leave about 12 inches of space between two holes. Cover the holes with soil and sprinkle some water on top. Sow at least 2 seeds in a pot and use at least 2 pots for sowing the seeds.


The seeds will start to germinate within 2-3 days of sowing and flowers will start to appear in 5-6 weeks. The gourds will be ready for picking within 3 months from planting.


Care for Bitter Gourds


Trellised vines produce hanging fruit, which grows long and straight. Vines allowed to sprawl on the ground should be mulched with straw or plastic to keep fruit from resting on the soil.


The growing tips of trellised vines should be pruned or pinched when they reach the top of the support, as should long lower lateral branches. This will concentrate the plant’s energy and result in more flowers and fruit. Prune when the first female flowers appear; female flowers follow male flowers.


Pollination


Vines commonly begin flowering about 5 to 6 weeks after planting. Male flowers open first, followed in a week or so by female blossoms. Both flowers are yellow. Female flowers have a swelling (the ovary) at the base of the bloom resembling a tiny melon. Bees and pollinating insects visit both blooms, transferring pollen from male to female flowers. Usually male blooms live only one day; they open in the morning and fall from the plant in the evening. Flower drop is not uncommon.


The ovary of pollinated female flowers will begin to enlarge and fruit will mature in two to four months. Mature fruits will be ready to pick about 12 weeks after planting. They will be light green and juicy with white, bitter flesh.


Hand pollination: Bitter Melons are pollinated by insects and honeybees. If there are flowers but no fruit forms and you find no bees at work in the garden, then you may rightfully suspect that pollination has not occurred. Pollination can be done by hand—this is true for cucumbers and squash as well: pick male flowers and transfer pollen by touching the center part of the male flowers against the center of the female flowers. (Female flowers have an enlarged section that looks like a little fruit between the flower and the vine stem; males don’t.)


Harvesting


Harvest bitter melon about 12 to 16 weeks after planting and 8 to 10 days after blossom drop when the fruits are 4 to 6 inches (10-15 cm) long. The fruits will be a bit pear shaped, with light green skin and a few streaks of yellow. If fruits stay too long on the vine they will over-ripen, turn all yellow, grow too large, and become bitter. Fruits on the same vine can vary in their degrees of bitterness—melons both immature and overripe can taste very bitter.


The bitter melon has a thin layer of flesh that turns orange to bright red when ripe. The flesh surrounds a hollow interior cavity with spongy, white pulp peppered with seeds. The fruit will be watery and crunchy much like a cucumber.


Bitterness is the result of the alkaloid momordicine found in growing bitter melons; the darker the color of a bitter melon the more bitter and intense the flavor of the fruit.

Once melons start to ripen, pick fruits regularly every two to three days. The more you pick, the more fruits will form.


Seed production: To save seed for next season, leave a few fruits on each vine to mature past harvest. Mature fruits will break open and release brown or white seeds. Collect the seed, sort it, wash it, and dry it on a countertop, then store it in a cool, dry spot. It will remain viable for 2 to 3 years.


Storing and preserving: Store bitter melons in a paper or plastic bag in the refrigerator between 53-55° F. (11-12°C.). Use within 3 to 5 days of harvest. Store bitter melon fruit away from other ripening fruits to avoid hastening the ripening process.


Pests and Diseases


Pests: Bitter melon can be attacked by spotted and striped cucumber beetles. Cucumber beetles can carry bacterial wilt disease which will cause vines to collapse. Infected vines don’t recover. Spray adult beetles with rotenone or a pyrethrum-based insecticide. Use all pesticides at dusk to avoid harming honey bees.


Fruit flies may also attack bitter melons; they can spread fruit rot. Prevent flies from reaching the fruit by covering fruits with paper bags secured with twine or rubber bands or wrapping them with newspaper when the fruits are just an inch or two long.


Keep the garden free of weeds; weeds often harbor pest insects.


Diseases: Bitter melon is susceptible to most of the same diseases that plague squash and cucumbers: fungal diseases such as powdery mildew, downy mildew, and rust and rots as well as watermelon mosaic virus and bacterial wilts. Trellising which increases air circulation around vines can help reduce fungal diseases. For non-trellised vines, use a straw or plastic mulch to keep melons from resting directly on moist soil. There is no cure for plants attacked by viruses. When possible, plant disease-resistant varieties.


Benefits of Bitter Gourd


High on nutrition


Bitter gourd is a rich source of vitamins and minerals. It contains iron, magnesium, potassium and vitamins like A and C. It contains twice the calcium of spinach and beta-carotene of broccoli. Various anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds are present in bitter gourd.


Improves Cardiac Health


It also helps in lowering the bad cholesterol levels, thus reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke.


Good for the Skin and Hair


Karela is rich in antioxidants and vitamins A and C, which are good for the skin. It reduces ageing and fights acne and skin blemishes. It is useful in treating various skin infections like ringworm, psoriasis, and itching. Karela juice adds lustre to the hair and combats dandruff, hair loss, and split-ends.


Fights inflammation


Bitter gourd is packed with polyphenols. These compounds are known for their ability to lower inflammation in the body. The more of them there are, the greater the anti-inflammatory effects could be.


Diabetes management


Bitter gourd contains bioactive compounds called saponins and terpenoids. These compounds are responsible for the vegetable’s bitter taste, but may also play a role in lowering blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. The saponins and terpenoids in bitter gourd may help move glucose from the blood to the cells while also helping your liver and muscles better process and store glucose.


Benefits the Eyes


Karela is rich in vitamin A and prevent cataract and strengthens vision. It even lightens dark circles.


Aids digestion


It is an excellent source of dietary fiber. Regular consumption of bitter gourd contributes to relieving constipation and indigestion. It supports healthy gut bacteria, which favours digestion and nutrient absorption.


Boosts weight loss


Bitter gourd is low in calories, fat and carbohydrates. These properties together help in weight management. It keeps you full for longer, so you avoid over-eating. It stimulates the liver to secrete bile acids that are essential for metabolising fat in the body. Moreover, bitter gourd contains 80-85% water, which is a universal suppressant of hunger. It also improves metabolism.


Uses


To prepare bitter melon, slice the fruit open and remove the seeds and pith. Do not peel. The fruit can be parboiled or soaked in salted water to lessen bitterness however this can affect the fruits normally crunchy texture.


Bitter melon can be stuffed (often stuffed with pork or shrimp and steamed), pickled, or curried and served with meat or in soup. The fruit pairs well with other strong flavors, like garlic, Chinese black beans, chili peppers, or coconut milk.


A dietary note: bitter melon is used in traditional Chinese medicine and in alternative medicine to treat Type 2 diabetes. It is also a folk remedy for treating high blood pressure. The combination of bitter melon and drugs sometimes used to treat hyperglycemia can decrease blood sugar levels to dangerously low levels.


Bitter melon has twice the beta carotene of broccoli, twice the potassium of bananas, and twice the calcium of spinach. It also contains high amounts of fiber, phosphorous, and Vitamins C, B1, B2, and B3.


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