The bitter melon plant is a favorite in Southeast Asian and Asian cooking, and you can stuff it with shrimp or pork and pickle or steam, or curry it before serving it in a soup or with meat. As the name suggests, bitter melons are a very strong acquired taste, and you can liken the taste to very dark chocolate or a grapefruit.
The bitter melon falls into the Cucurbitaceae family, and this family also includes watermelon, squash, cucumbers, and muskmelon. The bitter melon plant can be grown a lot like cantaloupes and cucumbers, but they are a subtropical plant that requires between three and four months of hot to warm and humid weather to thrive.
As the name suggests this bitter fruit is an acquired taste, but it goes well with a range of spicy and savory dishes.
Bitter Melon Plant – General Care
Bitter melons are a fruit that grow on a herbaceous vine, and it has a very bitter taste to it, as the name suggests. It’s actually too bitter to eat if you let it ripen. So, it makes sense that the fruit of the bitter melon plant gets harvested very young, and when you stuff them, you can slice or pickle them into several menu items.
Also called balsam pear or bitter gourd, the bitter melon plants are harvested before the seeds harvest and they are a very uniform pale green with a warty look. Fruit from this vine can get harvested at any time during the growth period but generally when they’re full-sized, still green, and roughly two weeks from anthesis. This is the period between when the blooms open and the fruit forms. This plant starts to bloom between four and six weeks after you sow them.
Bitter melon plants are native to Asia and parts of southern China and eastern India, and these places were also where it was domesticated. Today, the bitter melon plant is very likely to be cultivated throughout the world as immature fruit.
The bitterness from this plant comes from the fact that it has the alkaloid momordicin in it. The darker your coloring your bitter melon plant is, the more intense and bitter the flavor profile will be, no matter if you use it in culinary dishes or for medicinal properties like a digestive stimulant or as a hypoglycemic.
The inside of the bitter melon plant fruit is very spongy, and it has white pulp with seeds. When you slice into this melon, it has hollow areas with a thin flesh layer and a central seed cavity. When you use it in cooking, the pulp will be sliced and soaked in salted water or parboiled to reduce how bitter it is. The resulting texture is very crunchy and watery, very much like a cucumber. As the flesh ripens, it’ll slowly turn orange, mushy, and start to split into sections and curl back to expose the bright red pulp.
How to Grow the Bitter Melon Plant – Step by Step
Bitter melon is also called bitter gourd or karela, and it’s a very fast-growing cucumber relative that is native to parts of South Asia. It’s known for having knobby, oblong fruit and a flavor that is much more bitter than grapefruit. If you live in a humid and hot climate and provide it with proper care, you can have success growing this plant.
Setting Up Your Growing Area
Plant your bitter melon plant when the temperatures are between 75 and 80-degrees Fahrenheit. Even though this plant is more resistant to the cold than other plants in the same family, a hard frost will kill it. Even though it depends heavily on your location, you’ll usually be okay to plant your seeds in late April or early May. The bitter melon plant can grow in a minimum temperature of 65-degrees Fahrenheit, but it will grow slower in this temperature range. You can also grow your melon in a greenhouse to prevent frost damage.
Find a spot in your yard that gets a minimum of six hours of sunlight each day. Although getting a few hours of shade each day is okay, it prefers to be in a spot that gets full, bright sun. You can plant the seeds in the shade as long as the vines reach the sunlight once they start to grow. Add compost and manure to the soil, and make sure it drains well. Mix in organic materials to add nutrients to your soil before you plant the seeds. This plant prefers to be in sandy, soft soil, so mix in sand if it’s too dense. The pH should range from 5.5 to 6.7 to keep your bitter melon plant healthy.
Build a trellis for your bitter melon plants to climb. Make sure your trellis is a minimum of six feet tall so that the vines have room to wrap around it and grow. Shape your trellis into an “A” shape over the growing space. Growing them on a trellis will help prevent diseases, produce larger fruit, and make harvesting easier.
If you choose to grow your bitter melon plants on the ground, they won’t produce nearly as large of fruit. Also, if you decide not to trellis your melons, you’ll want to add a layer of mulch or straw to create a barrier between the soil and the plant, prevent fruit rot, and help the soil retain moisture.
Building a trellis system for this plant is very important as it reduces the risks of fruit rot and other problems.
Sowing Your Bitter Melon Seeds
Soak all of your seeds 24 hours before you plant them. Put the seeds in a bowl of room temperature water and allow them to soak. This will help the seeds germinate quickly once you plant them. After they soak, pull them out and pat them dry using a paper towel. You can buy the seeds from your local nursery or online.
Plant two or three seeds in the same ½ inch deep hole. Plant your bitter melon plants directly outside. Poke a hole in the soil with your finger and drop two or three seeds inside. Cover the hole with topsoil. If you plant several plants in the same space, the holes should be between 40 and 60 inches apart directly into the soil. You can also start the seeds in small pots and fill them with potting mix if the temperatures are too cold. You can transplant them outside 15 to 20 days later.
Water the soil until the top ½ inch is damp to the touch. Using a watering can and gently wet the soil. Put your finger into the soil down to your first knuckle. The soil should feel moist at this part, but it shouldn’t be waterlogged. Keep watering your soil every morning, and make a point to water it at the same time every day. The seedlings will start germinating after two or three days. The soil should stay moist but not soaked.
Once the seedlings develop four to six true leaves, you should thin them out. Save your healthiest-looking seedlings. Use a smaller pair of sterilized, sharp shears to clear away the weaker plants by cutting them off at the base. If the seedlings are all the same size, you can either wait a day or two to see which ones grow larger or thin them at random.
Caring for Your Bitter Melon Plant
Spray your bitter melon plants with fungicides to prevent diseases. Bitter melon is prone to issues with the same diseases that affect squash and cucumbers. Use a fungicide made to use on squash from your local garden center to prevent infections. You may have issues with downy mildew, watermelon mosaic potyvirus, or leaf spot. Look for splotchy discoloration on your plant’s foliage. Fungal infections typically show up after periods of heavy rain. Carefully monitor your plants if it’s wet for more than a few days.
Apply insecticides to prevent insects from taking over. Cucumber beetles are a very common pest that can carry a bacteria that permanently damages your bitter melon plant’s vines. Apply a pesticide that has rotenone at dusk so you don’t impact the day pollinators by carefully following the dosage and application instructions on the package to prevent hurting your plants.
Be aware that fruit flies could lay eggs in the melons. If you notice fruit flies hovering around the plant, protect the individual fruit by wrapping them in paper bags or newspapers. You should only use harsh chemicals if the infestation gets to the point where it’s severely impacting your plant’s health. If you plan on eating your bitter melon, make sure you pick out pesticides that are safe for human consumption, like vinegar or liquid soap sprays.
Water the soil around your bitter melon plants once a day, and water until the top ½ inch of soil is wet. Overwatering the plant could cause damage to the root system and cause the fruit to rot. An irrigation system is a great way to give you plants consistent moisture without overdoing it.
Prune the tip of your plant’s main stem once it gets past the top of your trellis. Use a pair of clean pruning shears to cut the growing stem back by two inches. This will help to encourage faster growth of fruit, and it puts the plant’s energy into the lateral vines that grow from the main stem. If you’re not growing it on a trellis, prune the vine once the first female flowers start appearing. Female flowers will have knobby green stems with yellow petals.
Fertilize your bitter melon plants with a balanced NPK formula throughout the spring and summer months. Only start applying the fertilizer once the plant develops four to six true leaves. A store-bought fertilizer meant for vegetables and fruits works well. Follow the directions on the labels so you don’t oversaturate the soil. Water the soil directly after you apply fertilizer so it has a chance to soak into the root system.
This is a fairly low-maintenance plant that won’t require a huge amount of care from you to make them thrive.
Harvesting the Fruit
Pick the bitter melon plant fruits 12 to 16 weeks after you plant it when they’re still green. Use a pair of scissors to cut the hanging fruit from the vine. The fruit should be roughly four to six inches long and firm to the touch when you harvest them. They’ll be a light green color, but they may have yellow streaks on the fruit. Any plants that are totally yellow and soft when you touch them are overripe. The bitterness levels of the fruits may vary, even when it’s on the same vine.
Harvest the fruit every two days after they start to ripen. More fruit will start to form on the same vine after you remove the fruit that is ready. Check your vines every other day or so to see if the fruit is ready to be cut. You want to harvest it before it fully ripens.
Cook and eat the raw bitter melon plant fruit within three to five days after you harvest them. Keep the fruit in a paper or plastic bag in the refrigerator. Cut over the fruit and remove the seeds, pair it with spicy peppers or garlic to mask the melon’s bitter flavor profile.
You can parboil the fruit to help reduce the bitterness, but this may change the texture. Bitter melon has healthy doses of iron, potassium, fiber, and high amounts of vitamins B3, B2, B1, and C.
Troubleshooting Issues with Bitter Melon Plants
Flowers usually start appearing on the vine within a few weeks of planting them. Like any cucurbits, bitter melon plants have female and male flowers on the vines. Female flowers have a swelling at the base of the plant that looks like a tiny melon. Male flowers will open first, followed by the female flowers a week or so later. Bees make visits to both flowers, transferring pollen from the male flower to the female one. Usually, the male flowers will only live for a day by opening in the morning and falling from the vines at dusk. Don’t be alarmed if you see fallen flowers under the vines.
Fruits are prone to various types of rot. Trellising them can reduce your rot issues. For any non-trellised vines, use a straw mulch to keep melons from resting directly on the soil. Fruit flies can attack your ripening fruits, but wrapping the melons in newspaper can help ward them off.
Many of the insects and diseases that attack cantaloupe and squash can also impact bitter melon plants. Vines also have issues with downy or powdery mildew, and they are the host of the watermelon mosaic virus. Treat your infected vines with fungicides. Check your local garden center or Extension office to figure out what fungicides are available in your state. Plants won’t recover from this virus.
Keep an eye out for striped or spotted cucumber beetles as they attack the vines. These beetles carry bacterial wilt disease that causes the vines to collapse. Infected vines won’t recover from this. You should treat the adult beetles with rotenone or an insecticide with a pyrethrum base to stop from harming honey bees.
There are several pollinators that will visit your bitter melon and fertilize the flowers, so you want to make your yard as big of a draw for them as possible.
How to Store Bitter Melon for a Short Time
First, you’ll want to wash the fresh bitter melon under cool water and allow it to drip dry until you don’t see any more water on the skin. Next, put your bitter melon plants in a Ziplock storage bag and put it in the crisper drawer in your refrigerator as soon as it dries. You can store your bitter melon in the fruit bin inside your refrigerator for four or five days.
Bitter melon is extremely sensitive to the cold, and you shouldn’t store it below 50-degrees Fahrenheit. You need to store this fruit away from pears, apples, potatoes, and other vegetables or fruits that store ethylene gas since it will cause the fruit to ripen more and get much more bitter.
How to Freeze & Store Bitter Melon
Freezing thin slices of bitter melon is a very easy way to store it for a decently long time if you’re not planning on cooking it right away. When you’re ready to use it, all you have to do is put it in the refrigerator and defrost it. To prepare it to freeze it, you should:
- Wash and then completely dry your bitter melon plant fruit
- Cut the bloom and stem off of the fruit. You won’t need to peel it if you plan on slicing it thinly to freeze
- Slice the bitter melon lengthwise
- Remove the seeds and scrape out the pulpy, yellow material inside
- Slice the melon into thin strips
- Place the strips of fruit into Vacuum Freezer bags and close them tightly
- Get your vacuum sealer pump and use it to get rid of any excess air that will cause freezer burn. If you don’t have a vacuum sealer pump you can skip this step, but try and get as much air out of the bag as you can. Regular freezer bags will also work if you don’t have vacuum bags.
For this method to be successful, you will need a good vacuum sealer.
How to Freeze and Store Bitter Melon Leaves
The leaves and young shoots of the bitter melon plant can be eaten as greens like spinach and boiled to make a bitter tea. While this is much less popular than fruit, the leaves are just as nutritious as the fruit. However, just like the fruit, the leaves are very bitter and potent, so you’ll only need a little. It’s very easy to freeze the leaves to use later with the following method:
- Remove the stems from the leaves with a pair of clean shears
- Rinse all of your leaves thoroughly with water
- Blanch the leaves by bringing a pot of water to a boil and put the leaves in for a minute. Remove the leaves from the boiling water and place them in an ice bath to stop the cooking process. Leave them in the water for two minutes.
- Dry the leaves by laying them on a kitchen towel and blot them with paper towels
- Put the dry leaves in a freezer bag, and remove as much air as you can before you seal it.
- Label your bag with the date that you froze the leaves and put them into your freezer.
How to Remove the Bitterness from Bitter Melon
It’s not possible to remove all of the bitterness from the bitter melon plant, but you can tone the bitterness’s intensity down by extracting some of the juice. Wash the bitter melon and remove the pith and all of the seeds. The seeds are very bitter by themselves, so they add to the intensity. Slice the fruit and sprinkle some salt over the slice.
Allow it to sit for 20 to 30 minutes. At this time, the salt draws out a lot of the moisture from the pieces and the bitter flavors too. Give it a gentle squeeze to extract the juices before washing it under running water and squeezing it again for better results.
It’s relatively easy to get bitter melon fruits ready to store for short or long-term, and this is great if you have a bunch ready to eat at one time but you can’t use them all.
How to Prepare Bitter Melon
To prepare the bitter melon plant, there are a few things you can do to make it more palatable. They include:
- You don’t have to peel bitter melon if you slice it very thinly. However, you can trim and peel it to make it easier to eat.
- Seeds can be removed or left in the fruit. However, they may bring more bitterness to each serving, especially as it matures. To remove the seeds, cut the melon into slices and pop out the pith and seeds using your finger. Leave the green ring or half the melon lengthwise and scoop out the seeds.
- Bitter melon can get sliced crosswise into one-inch or thinner rounds before you cook it.
- To stuff bitter melon, halve it crosswise and ream out the core of the pith and seeds.
- To draw the bitterness out of the fruit, slice it and then liberally salt each slice and set it aside for 30 minutes. You can then squeeze or press the slices, and press again before patting them dry and using them. If it’s still too bitter for you, blanch your slices in a pot of boiling water with one teaspoon of baking soda for every quart of water you use. The melon will turn a bright emerald color, and then you plunge it in an ice bath and drain it before you cook it.
Bitter Melon Cooking Suggestions
There are several ways you can cook the fruit from the bitter melon plant, but you should never serve it raw. A few other cooking suggestions include:
- Stir-fry, deep fry, braise, saute, bake, or steam your bitter melon
- Serve it diced in curries, pickles, or stir-fries, or stuff it in shrimp, meat, onions, and spices.
- Steam it and serve it with pork, ginger, onions, and black bean sauce or in soups.
- Season it with turmeric and cumin.
- Parboil it like zucchini and serve it as a side dish
- Season the slices of bitter melon with turmeric, salt, and a little chili and then deep fry it or remove the central pith and stuff it with a seasoned minced pork, chopped onion, shrimp, or fish paste before you bake it.
- You can cook young leaves and shoots like you would spinach.
The bitter melon plant is relatively easy to grow and harvest, and you can use it for a variety of dishes. It does have a bitter taste, as the name suggests, but it’s packed full of vitamins and nutrients. Now you know how to grow the bitter melon plant, and you can add it to your vegetable garden this year.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.