Bitter melon is a homely looking fruit that looks somewhat like a hybrid between a pickle and a gourd. But what this green, warty fruit lacks in appearance it certainly makes up for in health benefits. Bitter melon is a medicinal plant that’s been used across Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean to treat a host of ailments from diabetes to constipation. While it’s not commonly grown in the U.S., immigrants are introducing this age-old favorite to their gardens.
What is Bitter Melon?
Bitter melon is a vining plant that’s a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, which also includes squash, watermelon, and cucumbers. It’s no surprise that bitter melon tastes bitter. In fact, it can make your mouth pucker like sucking on a lemon. It tastes like a mixture of grapefruit and chocolate if you can imagine that. The unripe version is eaten like a vegetable in dishes like stir fry.
How to Grow Bitter Melon
Bitter melon is a warm season crop that needs to be grown in temperatures of at least 75 degrees F. It grows best in hot and humid climates, but it can also be grown in greenhouses to extend the growing season. It should usually be planted in the late spring or early summer. Here are some planting tips:
Choose a warm, sunny location. Bitter melon can tolerate sandy soil, but compost-rich soil that drains well is best. Trellising the plants to avoid them sitting on wet soil is a great way to avoid disease and rotting.
Each trellis should be planted about ten feet apart from each other. Prune the bottom branches of the plant in order to encourage the plant to yield more fruit. Bitter melon grows well along with pumpkins, squash, and beans.
If you don’t have room to plant, bitter melon can be grown in a container that’s at least five gallons in size. Water plants daily.
The Health Benefits of Bitter Melon
The melon’s bitter taste is a source of many health benefits. Compounds called cucurbitacins help cleanse the body while improving blood sugar, fighting viruses, and even killing cancer cells. Bitter melon has been used as a medicinal plant in Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, and so many other forms of traditional medicine for millennia. With its laundry list of health benefits, you can see why:
1. Lowers blood sugar
Bitter melon is well known for lowering blood sugar and even reversing diabetes. A study published in the February 2003 edition of the American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy found that bitter melon may have hypoglycemic effects on the body. Two compounds in bitter melon aid in the reduction of blood sugar: polypeptide-P, which is known to reduce blood sugar levels and charantin which helps with glucose uptake and glycogen synthesis in the body.
2. Nutritionally dense
Fresh bitter melon is known as a great source of vitamins including folate and vitamin C. This makes it a nice addition to your diet when you’re pregnant or trying to get pregnant. It also contains vitamin B-6 and minerals like iron, zinc, potassium, manganese, and magnesium.
It’s rich in antioxidants including beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, and lutein. Together these guys fight the free radicals that cause aging and disease.
4. Good for digestion
Bitter melon is also known for aiding in digestion and being a helpful treatment for those with constipation. It’s rich in fiber and known as a natural laxative that helps support a healthy gut.
5. May aid in the treatment of HIV
Early trials have shown that bitter melon may be effective in the treatment of HIV. According to the July 1995 edition of the journal AIDS Asia, bitter melon may reduce symptoms in those with HIV. Much more research needs to be done, but early trials are promising.
6. Anti-cancer benefits
A study published in the 2010 edition of the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention found that bitter melon could have anti-cancer benefits, specifically with regards to skin tumors.
Bitter melon is most commonly stir-fried or added to soups. You can remove some of the bitterness by slicing it down the middle, spooning out the seeds, and cutting into rounds. Sprinkle with salt (as you might large eggplants) and let sit for 45 minutes. I love this recipe for Crispy Kerala. Also, try these awesome bitter melon recipes.
Oven Baked Crispy Bitter Melon
Servings: Serves 6
6 medium bitter gourds
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. turmeric powder
1/2 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. garam masala
1/2 lemon, juiced
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- Peel the hard skin off of your bitter melons using a vegetable peeler or a knife. Wash and pat dry with paper towels.
- Slice into 1/4-inch rounds and discard ends.
- Toss in oil and spices. Marinate for 15 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
- Place marinated gourd slices on a baking sheet. Avoid overcrowding.
- Bake for 15 minutes. Flip and bake for an additional 15 minutes on the other side. Bake until golden brown.
- Let cool on baking sheet for ten minutes before serving.
Recipe: Kiran Tarun
Sara Novak is an independent journalist who reports on health, science, yoga, and travel. She was a writer for Discovery Communications from 2006-2013 and her work has been featured on Discovery Health, Popular Science, TLC, Animal Planet, What to Expect, TreeHugger, and much more. She’s also a certified yoga teacher. When she’s not churning away on her laptop, she can be found on her yoga mat or be walking the beach with her husband, baby boy, and two lovable cocker spaniels.
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