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Publication #HS1271

Bitter Melon—an Asian Vegetable Emerging in Florida1

Guodong Liu, Qingren Wang, Yuncong Li, David Dinkins, Bonnie Wells, and Yuqi Cui2

Bitter melon (Momordica charantia L.) is a member of the cucumber family: Cucurbitaceae. This melon is also known as bitter gourd, bitter squash, Goya melon, karela, and balsam pear (Stephens 2012). It is a tropical and subtropical vegetable crop with long climbing vines which is widely cultivated in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. The fresh fruiting vegetable is one of the most popular vegetables grown in China, India, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam. It has also been grown as a minor vegetable in tropical and subtropical regions of the United States including parts of Florida (Stephens 2012). The unripe fruit is used as a vegetable with a pleasantly bitter taste.

This crop is propagated via seeds with stiff testae (seed coats) which need warm (60–95°F) and moist soil conditions for germination (Figure 1). It may fail or take a long time to germinate if the soil is dry or the temperature is not high enough. Bitter melon is a dicotyledonous species that grows vines up to 16 feet long with many branches. After germination, the first pair of true leaves is round; the others are simple and alternate leaves measuring 2 to 5 inches across, with three to seven deeply separated lobes. Once the plant has grown four to six leaves, its vines start bearing tendrils for climbing (Figure 2). A trellis support system is necessary for high yield and quality bitter melon production. The trellis system is usually 6 feet high (Figures 3 and 4).

Figure 1. 

A) Immature seeds of bitter melon. The top two lines of seeds have edible arils (specialized outgrowths from seeds that completely cover the seeds). The bottom line has thick and hard testae (seed coats). Seed germination is usually slow because of the thick testae. B) Mature seeds (0.4-0.6 inches in length) of bitter melon. The seed testae have uneven surfaces with nonlinear stripes.


Credit:

Guodong Liu, UF/IFAS


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Figure 2. 

The bitter melon vine starts bearing tendrils for climbing when the plant has between four and six leaves.


Credit:

Guodong Liu, UF/IFAS


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Figure 3. 

Six-foot tall trellis systems provide support for bitter melon vines.


Credit:

Yuqi Cui, UF/IFAS


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Figure 4. 

Bitter melon field with permanent trellis during harvest in south Florida.


Credit:

Qingren Wang, UF/IFAS


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

In Florida, bitter melon starts blooming approximately four weeks after seeding. Each plant bears both male (Figure 5) and female (Figure 6) flowers separately. Bitter melon is a cross-pollinating species and needs insects, such as bees, to carry out the pollinating process for setting fruit. When pollinators are lacking, manual pollination (i.e., picking up male flowers and transferring pollens to female flowers) can be an option. Female flowers have a baby fruit between the flower and the vine stem (Figure 6). This pollination should be completed during the daytime when flowering is active. If the pollination is successful, the baby fruit will grow into a full size fruit.

Figure 5. 

Bitter melon’s male flower.


Credit:

Guodong Liu, UF/IFAS


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Figure 6. 

Bitter melon’s female flower.


Credit:

Guodong Liu, UF/IFAS


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

There are two types of bitter melon: Chinese variety and Indian variety, named due to the preference of these varieties in China and India, respectively. The former is longer and larger in size (usually 8 to 12 inches in length and 2 to 3 inches in diameter), smooth, light green in color, and oblong-shaped with a distinct warty appearance. The latter is shorter and smaller in size with rough skin, dark green coloration, and pointed ends. Both types have ridges, but Chinese bitter melon ridges are smooth (Figure 7), and Indian bitter melon ridges are pointed (Figure 8).

Figure 7. 

Chinese bitter melon.


Credit:

Guodong Liu, UF/IFAS


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Figure 8. 

Indian bitter melon fruit.


Credit:

Guodong Liu, UF/IFAS


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

According to the USDA-ARS National Nutrient Database, bitter melon is an excellent source of vitamin C, folate (vitamin B9), and other nutrients such as zinc and potassium (Table 1). Bitter melon fruit are harvested when the fruit is green or slightly yellow. They are cut into halves and the seeds are removed and discarded. The sliced fruit is then consumed with stir-fry cooking (Figure 9). The fruit flesh is often used in Chinese cuisine with sliced garlic, chicken eggs, pork, or “douchi,” a type of fermented and salted black soybean (Figure 10). In Indian dishes, the sliced fruit is marinated in a solution of salt and tamarind before being pan-fried with spices.

Figure 9. 

Two halves of Chinese bitter melon.


Credit:

Guodong Liu, UF/IFAS


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Figure 10. 

Cooked bitter melon with douchi, a type of fermented and salted black soybean.


Credit:

Guodong Liu, UF/IFAS


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Bitter melon has been used in Asian and African herbal medicine systems for a long time. Ethnobotanical uses in India suggest that this crop can lower blood sugar levels in diabetic patients (Paul and Raychaudhuri 2010). There are also studies that show its efficacy against various cancers such as breast cancer, choriocarcinoma (a fast-growing form of cancer that occurs in a woman's uterus), Hodgkin’s disease, human bladder carcinomas, lymphoid leukemia, lymphoma, melanoma, prostate cancer, skin tumor, and squamous carcinoma of the tongue and larynx (Grover and Yadav 2004). Bitter melon extracts are also reported to have anti-obesity effects as well as other medicinal effects (Wang and Ryu 2015).

Bitter melon is relatively new to most Floridians, particularly in north Florida, but certain growers have been cultivating this crop for several years. This crop can be direct seeded or transplanted. Direct seeding dates are usually from February to April and July to early August for the spring and fall growing seasons in north Florida. The corresponding dates for central Florida are from January to March and early September to February. For south Florida, it can be seeded from September through February. Distance between rows should be 5 to 6 feet, and spacing between plants should be between 3 and 5 feet (Freeman et al. 2015). Fruit should be harvested approximately 50 days after seeding in north Florida. For central and south Florida, fruit can be harvested earlier after seeding. Transplanting can expand the growing season and make the fruit available earlier. This early availability of fruit is beneficial to growers’ profitability. If harvested at maturity, fruit turns from green to orange. The seed cover, or aril tissue, turns bright red (Figure 11) and starts to taste sweet. If harvested too late, the fruit opens naturally at the end, and seeds may drop onto the ground. Disease control recommendations can be found in the EDIS publication entitled Diseases of Bitter Melon in South Florida (Zhang et al. 2012, https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pp300). Fertilization recommendations for this crop are not available. Growers are suggested to apply fertilizers based on commercial cucumber production: N 150 lb/A; P2O5 and K2O both are the same, 120, 100, and 80 lb/A for very low, low, and medium, respectively (Liu et al. 2015, http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/cv/cv29600.pdf).

Figure 11. 

A) Bitter melon fruit at maturity. Mature fruit will begin to turn orange; B) Mature fruit opens to drop the seeds to the ground for the next generation. The seed arils (not the testae) turn red in color and taste sweet.


Credit:

Guodong Liu, UF/IFAS


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

References and Further Reading

AgriFarming. 2015. “Bitter gourd farming information guide.” #1 Source for Farming in India. Accessed December 3, 2015. http://agrifarming.in/bitter-gourd-farming

Behera, T. K., S. Behera, L. K. Bharathi, K. J. John, P. W. Simon, and J. E. Staub. 2010. Bitter Gourd: Botany, Horticulture, Breeding. Horticultural Reviews (ed. J. Janick.) 37: 101–41. Accessed December 3, 2015. http://naldc.nal.usda.gov/download/42264/PDF

Beloin, N., M. Gbeassor, K. Akpagana, J. Hudson, K. De Soussa, K. Koumaglo, and J. T. Arnason. 2005. “Ethnomedicinal uses of Momordica charantia (Cucurbitaceae) in Togo and relation to its phytochemistry and biological activity.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 96: 49–55.

Chen, Q., L. L. Chan, and E. T. Li. 2003. “Bitter melon (Momordica charantia) reduces adiposity, lowers serum insulin and normalizes glucose tolerance in rats fed a high fat diet.” The Journal of Nutrition 133: 1088–93.

Freeman, J. H., E. J. McAvoy, P. J. Dittmar, M. Ozores-Hampton, M. Paret, Q. Wang, C. F. Miller, and S. E. Webb. 2015. Cucurbit production. HS725. Gainesville: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Accessed December 3, 2015. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/cv123

Grover, J. K., and S. P. Yadav. 2004. “Pharmacological actions and potential uses of Momordica charantia: A review.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 93: 123–32. Accessed December 3, 2015. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S037887410400159X

Lim, T. K. 2013. Edible medicinal and non-medicinal plants. Dordrecht: Springer. 331–32.

Liu, G. D., E. H. Simonne, K. T. Morgan, G. J. Hochmuth, M. Ozores-Hampton, and S. Ageharas. 2015. Chapter 2. Fertilizer management for vegetable production in Florida. CV296. Gainesville: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Accessed December 3, 2015. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/cv/cv29600.pdf

Lo, H. Y., T. Y. Ho, C. Lin, C. C. Li, and C. Y. Hsiang. 2013. “Momordica charantia and its novel polypeptide regulate glucose homeostasis in mice via binding to insulin receptor.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 61 : 2461–8.

Ooi, C. P., Z. Yassin, and T. A. Hamid. 2012. “Momordica charantia for type 2 diabetes mellitus.” The Cochrane Library 8: CD007845.

Palada, M. C., and L. C. Chang. 2003. “Suggested cultural practices for bitter gourd.” International Cooperators’ Guide. Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center (AVRDC) pub# 03-547. 1–5. Accessed December 3, 2015. http://203.64.245.61/web_crops/cucurbits/bittergourd.pdf

Paul, A., and S. S. Raychaudhuri. 2010. “Medicinal uses and molecular identification of two Momordica charantia varieties – A review.” Electronic Journal of Biology 6: 43–51.

Stephens, J. M. 2012. Momordica—Momordica spp. HS627. Gainesville: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/mv094.

USDA-ARS. 2015. National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 28, Full Report (All Nutrients) 11025, Balsam-pear (bitter gourd), pods, cooked, boiled, drained, without salt. http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/2833?fg=&manu=&lfacet=&format=Full&count=&max=35&offset=&sort=&qlookup=11025

Wang, J., and H. K. Ryu. 2015. “The effects of Momordica charantia on obesity and lipid profiles of mice fed a high-fat diet.” Accessed December 3, 2015. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26425278

Zhang, S., M. Lamberts, and E. McAvoy. 2012. Diseases of bitter melon in south Florida. PP300. Gainesville: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Accessed December 3, 2015. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pp300

Tables

Table 1. 

Nutritional value of bitter melon.z

Nutrient

Unit

Value

1 cup (1/2" pieces)

0.5 cup (1/2" pieces)

(Proximates)

100 g

(3.5 oz)

% of daily value

124 g (4.3 oz)

% of daily value

62 g (2.2 oz)

% of daily value

Water

g

93.95

 

116.5

 

58.25

 

Energy

kcal

19

 

24

 

12

 

Energy

kJ

79

 

98

 

49

 

Protein

g

0.84

 

1.04

 

0.52

 

Total lipid (fat)

g

0.18

 

0.22

 

0.11

 

Ash

g

0.71

 

0.88

 

0.44

 

Carbohydrate, by difference

g

4.32

 

5.36

 

2.68

 

Fiber, total dietary

g

2

 

2.5

 

1.2

 

Sugars, total

g

1.95

 

2.42

 

1.21

 

Minerals

Calcium, Ca

mg

9

1

11

1.24

6

0.62

Iron, Fe

mg

0.38

3

0.47

3.72

0.24

1.86

Magnesium, Mg

mg

16

5

20

6.2

10

3.1

Phosphorus, P

mg

36

5

45

6.2

22

3.1

Potassium, K

mg

319

7

396

8.68

198

4.34

Sodium, Na

mg

6

 

7

0

4

0

Zinc, Zn

mg

0.77

8

0.95

9.92

0.48

4.96

Copper, Cu

mg

0.033

 

0.041

0

0.02

0

Manganese, Mn

mg

0.086

4

0.107

4.96

0.053

2.48

Selenium, Se

µg

0.2

 

0.2

0

0.1

0

Vitamins

Vitamin C, total ascorbic acid

mg

33

40

40.9

49.6

20.5

24.8

Thiamin

mg

0.051

 

0.063

0

0.032

0

Riboflavin

mg

0.053

 

0.066

0

0.033

0

Niacin

mg

0.28

 

0.347

0

0.174

0

Pantothenic acid

mg

0.193

 

0.239

0

0.12

0

Vitamin B6

mg

0.041

 

0.051

0

0.025

0

Folate, total

µg

51

13

63

16.12

32

8.06

Folic acid

µg

0

 

0

0

0

0

Folate, food

µg

51

 

63

0

32

0

Folate, DFE

µg

51

 

63

0

32

0

Choline, total

mg

10.8

 

13.4

0

6.7

0

Vitamin B12

µg

0

 

0

0

0

0

Vitamin B12, added

µg

0

 

0

0

0

0

Vitamin A, RAE

µg

6

1

7

1.24

4

0.62

Retinol

µg

0

 

0

0

0

0

Carotene, beta

µg

68

1

84

1.24

42

0.62

Carotene, alpha

µg

0

 

0

0

0

0

Cryptoxanthin, beta

µg

0

 

0

0

0

0

Vitamin A, IU

IU

113

 

140

0

70

0

Lycopene

µg

0

 

0

0

0

0

Lutein + zeaxanthin

µg

1323

 

1641

0

820

0

Vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol)

mg

0.14

1

0.17

1.24

0.09

0.62

Vitamin E, added

mg

0

 

0

0

0

0

Vitamin D (D2 + D3)

µg

0

 

0

0

0

0

Vitamin D

IU

0

 

0

0

0

0

Vitamin K (phylloquinone)

µg

4.8

5

6

6.2

3

3.1

zSource: USDA-ARS, National Nutrient Database available at http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/2870?fg=&manu=&lfacet=&format=Full&count=&max=35&offset=&sort=&qlookup=11025

Footnotes

1.

This document is HS1271, one of a series of the Horticultural Sciences Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date December 2015. Visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

2.

Guodong Liu, assistant professor, Horticultural Sciences Department; Qingren Wang, Extension agent, UF/IFAS Extension Miami-Dade County; Yuncong Li, professor, Soil and Water Science Department, Tropical Research and Education Center; David Dinkins, Extension agent, UF/IFAS Extension Putnam County; Bonnie Wells, Extension agent, UF/IFAS Extension St. Johns County; and Yuqi Cui, visiting scholar, Horticultural Sciences Department; UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.


The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.