The Wild Gardener

On April 18, 1810, Thomas Jefferson planted larkspurs, poppies, and balsam apples in the great Monticello flower borders because they are, for many reasons, fine additions to the garden. Sir Peyton Skipwith of Prestwould, in Mecklenburg County,Va., had a wife who recorded all the flower information that passed his way while Sir Peyton took care of the vegetables. It would have been easy for Jefferson to learn of this fascinating plant.

The balsam apple (Momordica balsamina), is a fast-growing tropical vine from Africa and Australia, cultivated for the ornamental leaves, the pretty flowers and the fruit. The name is derived from the Latin mordio, to bite, so called from the bitten appearance of the fruit. The specific, balsamina, refers to the use of the pulp as a liniment.

These perennial vines are treated as annuals in most gardens north of Florida, where they climb up small tree trunks, trellises, or through shrubbery using grasping tendrils. The deeply lobed, ivy-like leaves are light green, and have an intensive, sometimes unpleasant, smell.

Flowering begins about a month after planting seed. The small axillary flowers range from creamy-white to a light yellow and have black centers. After fertilizing, the fruits have an upside down drop shape, and turn from green to deep orange.

When the fruits are mature, they split along three sides, much like the pods in recent horror films, revealing a red interior and large white seeds.

These vines make excellent screens and are great for covering rock piles or old stumps in the garden. The vines need a long growing season for the fruits to mature, about 16 weeks after sowing, so start seeds indoors at least eight weeks before the last frost.

The spongy white interior pulp and seeds of unpeeled immature bitter melon are sliced for use as a vegetable in various Asian dishes but many authorities stress that proper procedures must be followed including parboiling or soaking in salted water to remove the bitter principle. The AMA Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants specifies that momordin, a plant lectin (toxalbumin), interferes with protein synthesis in the intestinal wall — so care should be used. I will continue to use them for decorative purposes only. A liniment is made by adding pulped fruit to almond oil and is useful for chapped hands and burns.

Momordica charantia is the balsam pear, another perennial vine used as an annual, that grows up to twelve feet in a good season, eventually producing large, spindle-shaped fruits, tapering from the middle to either end, orange-yellow in color, and about eight inches long. At maturity, the fruits burst open to reveal scarlet linings for the white seeds.

The immature fruits are known as bitter melons or bitter gourds and (by brave folks) are stuffed, pickled and sliced for addition to many oriental dishes.

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