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How to Grow Bitter Melon

Bitter melon

Bitter melonBitter melon is a favorite in Asian and Southeast Asian cooking. It can be stuffed with pork or shrimp and steamed or pickled or curried and served with meat or in soup.

Bitter melons are—as their name suggests–a bitter and mouth-puckering acquired taste—something like the acquired taste of a grapefruit or very dark chocolate.

The bitter melon is a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, which includes squash, watermelon, muskmelon, and cucumbers. Bitter melon can be grown much like cucumbers or cantaloupes but they are a subtropical plant and require at least three to four months of warm to hot and humid weather to mature.

Description: Bitter melon is a vining plant. It has deeply lobed leaves and grows in a fashion similar to squash, cucumbers, and watermelon producing vines 13 to 16 feet long if left unpruned. Fruits are oblong and either smooth or warty, usually about 8 inches (20 cm) long but fruits can vary in length between 2 and 10 inches (5-25 cm) long. 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.

Yield: Each plant will produce 10 to 12 fruits and perhaps a few more.

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.

Companion Plants: Beans, corn, peas, pumpkins, and squash. Do not grow bitter melons with potatoes and herbs.

 Care: 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.)

Container Growing: Bitter melon can be grown in a pot. Choose a container that can hold at least 5 gallons (19 liters) of potting soil—more is better. Make sure the container drains well.

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.

Harvest: 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.

Varieties: 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.

Chinese varieties include Large Top, Hong Kong Green, China Pearl, Southern Money Maker, and Hybrid White Pearl.

Indian varieties include India Long Green, India Long White, Hybrid India Green Queen, and Hybrid India Pearl.

 Use: 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.

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.

Common name: Bitter gourd, balsam pear, karela, bitter cucumber, bitter squash, African cucumber, alligator pear, ampalaya, goya.

Botanical name: Momordica charantia

Origin: Southern China and eastern India

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    • Plant 2 or 3 seed to a container; use a 10-gallon or larger container; once plants are established, trim away the weakest seedlings and let just one grow in each container. Bitter melons need plenty of nutrients and moisture so it is best to give each plant its own container.

    • New flowers that fall or fail have been stressed. The stress could be environmental–weather too hot, too cold, too rainy. The stress could be too much water in the soil or not enough. The stress could be too much nitrogen in the soil. Bitter melon should thrive at temperatures around 70F to 75F. Keep the soil just moist–do not let the soil dry out and avoid watering so that the soil is very wet or soaked. Feed the plant with aged compost or compost tea.

  1. I have 2 seedlings per milk crate. is that ok, or crowded? also they aren’t branching out just growing in a single vine. how to I get them to branch out? just cut right above the first female flower? thanks!

    • If the milk crates are large–15 inches across or more–you can grow two bitter melons in each crate. If the plant is not branching, make sure it is getting sufficient sun. To help branching, nip off the growing tip (at the end of the vine) and a few leaves below the nipped away growing tip; new branches should begin to form.

  2. thanks for the advice! yes, the crates are about 15 inches. they get at least 6 hours of sun and are growing well. I’ve just got male flowers so far. But will snip the tips once the females start. thanks again.

  3. Do they form secondary roots on vines like pumpkin? If so would it be better to let them touch the ground i was planning on trellising from 7 gal grow bags.

    • Bitter melons are commonly propagated by cuttings set in water. Cuttings usually root in about 15 days. You may be able to root via a vine node set in the soil, although I have not done that. Bury a node of a running vine in soil; if it does root via nodes, you should see roots in about 15 to 20 days.

  4. I have a problem with my bitter melon, theyare dying, its rainy season here, affter the rain stop i found many of my crops are starting to die

    • The first thing to check is soil drainage. Bitter melon requires well drained soil. The roots can not sit in water. If the water table below your planting bed is high–or if you see water is not draining quickly and is sitting around the plants after rain, then you need to either (1) raise the beds–as much as a foot or more, adding lots or well draining aged compost or planting mix, and or (2) place plastic sheeting on the planting beds so that rainwater runs away from the plants and does not sit. Both 1 and 2 would be best.

  5. You have discussed about diseases like Powder mildew Downy mildew and Rust etc. Its good treatment is described as air circulation. Bitter guards have been planted in my house, but whatever results come in, the shape of the scalp is smaller and crooked, what causes it is, please tell any treatment for it.Thank you for sharing…

    • Train your bitter gourds on a trellis so that the fruits hang down without impediment. Make sure the plants get even water from flower to harvest.

  6. Hi mate,
    Its a great article. thanks a lot.
    I have grown this few months ago (3 probably) and I have got male flowers all around the vine. I had first female flower which was a twin flower (I have the picture), blossomed around 20 days ago and a twin fruit is about 5 inch long at this stage. 3-4 days ago I have seen the second female flower that have become a fruit. and that is it. Weather is warm, mostly 35+ C and sometimes touching 39-40C in the past couple of weeks (in Australia), watering is constant every 4 hours and not heavy, if I dont water it for a day it, the soil is dry. and yes I have a shade cloth on top to save my veg garden from blistering sun but it is a shade cloth that blocks 30% UV rays.
    Actual question is that I have seen small female flowers about half a cm long all around the vine after this first one but they do not grow bigger than that and stay the same size, dont die out either. Do you know the reason? I have seen he stress suggestion that you have given above but dont believe it applies here.i might be wrong. Thanks

    • Use a water-soluble high phosphorus organic fertilizer to supplement the feeding of your plants. Phosphorus is important for root, flower, and fruit growth. You can also get a blossom set spray which will likely contain kinetin (a natural plant hormone) to promote blossom set and fruit development. And plant pollinator attracting flowers and herbs around the garden.

  7. how many times can a single crop produce a harvest in its life span? will the plants stop fruiting and die after the harvest or can we take care of the plants and wait another harvest season out from them or clear out the whole crop after the harvest?

    • If you live in a tropical or sub-tropical region where the temperatures stays above 65F throughout the season then you should get more than one harvest from your plants. As long as the plant keeps flowering and is not slowed by cool temperatures, you can get successive harvests. Keep the soil evenly moist and feed the plant with compost tea or a dillute fish emulsion mix.

  8. You can place a bitter melon in a warm, sunny place like a window until it ripens and turns yellowish-orange; then you can open the melon and remove the seeds and scrape away the coating around the seeds. Plant the seeds straight away and water them in. They should germinate fairly soon. Keep them watered until they’re strong enough plant next to a trellis.

    • A medium-size bitter melon 5 to 6 inches long will weight about 1/2 pound or .22 kilograms.
      One bitter melon plant will produce 10 to 12 fruits or 2 to 3 kilos.

  9. Steve, thats wonderful advice which I wish I had read earlier. I have 2 varieties of bitter mellon seeds planted around a wire trellis, but unknowingly sowed them too close together at 8 to ten inches. & they are now about 4 or 5 inches tall. Can any of them be transplanted to a pot at this stage as I only have 9 plants in all ? It is early summer in Western Australia & already very hot between 28 & 35 celcius every day !

    • Transplanting when the weather is hot is not ideal unless you take precautions to protect the plants. Moisten the soil around the roots of the plants you are lifting the day before you transplant. On transplant day, remove as much soil as you can around the plant’s roots so as not to disturb the roots. Set the plants in their new home and add moistened potting mix around the roots and firm the soil in. Place a shade cover over the newly transplanted plants so they do not get direct overhead afternoon sun; morning and late afternoon sun should be fine. A day or two after transplanting water the plants with a solution of B1 or dilute starter fertilizer. The plants should adapt to their new home in 6 to 8 weeks.

      • Thanks steve, the plants are beginning to flower although only about 130 cm tall on single stalks with small laterals, should I nip out any laterals yet or even the leader or is it too early ?

        • You can nip off the growing tip (leader) when the plant reaches the height that is best for your situation. Lower growing plants will be easier to harvest. As well, plants that are not smaller can put their energy into fruit production rather than leaf and vine growth. That said, the larger the plant the more fruit it will produce–if all growing conditions are optimal. Laterals should be allowed to grow to a reasonable length; the leaves can support the plant’s own need for energy.

    • Bitter melon seeds are viable for 2 to 3 years. Allow them to dry, then store them in a paper envelope in the refrigerator until next season.

  10. My plant started flowering early. In a span of 2.5 weeks, I’m observing flowers coming out. Is it good or a bad sign? please guide me.

    • If the weather is warm and no chilly weather is expected, the plant and flower should do well. If you expect chilly weather, protect the plant with a plant blanket or row cover. If you lose the flower to cold, new flowers will develop when the weather warms again.

  11. So.. I have recently discovered a vine growing throughout my Tree (kind of a star pine in Florida) and used an app to ID this plant. It said it’s Bitter Melon. I’m guessing one of the few neighborhood cats that sleep under this tree brought me this gift, ironically I’m growing food on my screen porch, one being a cucumber. Hoping the bees pollinate this for me as now I’m looking forward to seeing if this grows any fruit!

  12. About pruning the tip off the leader….I am new to growing bittermelon. How much do I snip off the main leader? Also, there are Side shoots with very tiny leaves – should I leave it or snip them, too?

    • Once the plant has reached the top of its support or trellis you can start nipping off growth buds at the tip of the leader or side branches. This will contain the size of the plant; the plant will then put its energy into flowering and growing fruit.

  13. The bitter gourd plant of my small balcony has given me fruits like 1,then again, now 4 are going to be harvest. But I found that the leaves are turning yellow.Why it is s

    • There are two common reasons leaves turn yellow: (1) too little or too much water and (2) lack of nitrogen or other nutrients. Check the soil moisture–it should not be wet or dry 4 inches below the surface–just moist. Feed the plant with a dilute solution of fish emulsion every 10 days.

    • You can make compost tea or manure tea fertilizer for bitter gourd. Regular tea bags or tea leaves can be soaked in water and applied as a fertilizer as well; it is very low nitrogen and has traces of other nutrients as well.

  14. I planted bitter seeds for the first time. Not sure that’s what’s coming up, as my pups have dug up seed, etc…the small vines look like the pics. Do the fruit first resemble green grapes? Thanks!

    • The young fruits will look like small green grapes. Keep the soil evenly moist and feed the plants with a dilute solution of fish emulsion or kelp meal every 10 days. You will know for certain a few weeks as the fruits continue to develop.

  15. I live in the Algarve. I planted some seeds in a pot and it is time to transplant but fear as the rainy season is supposed to start I may have germinated the seeds at the wrong time. Temps at night can get to 12c but currently around 15c. Hope it is not too late to have planted them. No bitter lemon available in the markets or grown by farmers. Had to grow from seeds.

    • It is best to grow bitter melon in the warm time of the year. If your plants are in containers you can bring the indoors through winter then set them back out after the last frost or as temperatures warm in spring. If they are in the ground, you can try to protect them from chilly weather by placing a frame around them and covering the frame with clear plastic during rain or cool weather.

  16. Hi my names rob ive found that if you leave a bitter melon to ripen on the kitchen top for a few days you can cut it open remove and plant out the seeds straight away you get a good germination rate as they lose their viability very quickly

    • To grow bitter melon from cuttings use 5 to 6 inch (13-18cm) soft stem cuttings. The best strategy would be to root cuttings in a sterile seed starting mix or light potting soil kept just moist. Cuttings may or may not root in tepid water given plenty of bright light. Once roots appear transplant the seedlings to a light potting mix and feed with a dilute solution of fish emulsion until they gain strength.

  17. I was told that it is advisable to soak bitter melon seeds in warm water overnight before planting. Do you also recommend this procedure?

  18. Hi, I started growing bitter melons weeks ago and noticed that most of them stays small (like small vegetables) whereas others will grow normally. Any advice? Thanks.

    • Feed the plants with a dilute solution of fish emulsion or seaweed kelp; this will give them a nutrition boost. Be sure they get plenty of sunlight–8 hours minimum each day.

  19. I live in Tucson AZ, the weather has been very hot over 110 F for about a week. My bitter melon plants leaves are turning brown. I have been watering them every day, but I think the heat is too much for them. Any ideas?

    • Place stakes at the corners of the planting bed and drape shade cloth over the top to protect the plants from the hot and drying mid-day sun. If the bitter melons are growing on a trellis or vertical support, you can try to suspend the shade cloth above.

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