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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Bitter Gourd, Momordica charantia

Bitter Gourd Momordica charantia has to be one of the most memorable plants for a conservatory that I've grown in recent years. Once germinated the seedlings grow very quickly and need to be trained up a support (a wig-wam of canes works very well), which they tie themselves to very efficiently with their tendrils. Then they produce large numbers of yellow flowers. These are nothing special to look at - rather like cucumber flowers - but like many members of the cucumber family the plants are dioecious, producing separate male and female flowers on the same plant, so you have to pollinate them by hand to be sure of good fruit set on the female flowers..... but it's worth the effort. They quickly produce what look like small, warty cucumbers that are 15-20 cm. long  which ripen to a vivid shade of yellow then suddenly split open at the tip to reveal seeds covered with a sticky scarlet aril (an extra seed coat). The fruit is edible if cooked (but they're not called bitter gourds for nothing!) and they have a long history of use in Ayurvedic medicine . For that reason the plant is widely grown in India, although no one seems sure exactly where it originally came from. There is also some recent reputable research that suggests that the plant's chemical constituents may be of value in the treatment of diabetes. It's widely grown throughout the tropics, from Africa to the West Indies.