From Eat the Weeds
and Other Things Too website
by Green Deane
Balsam Pear: Pharmacy On A Fence
Bitter Gourd, edible only when green and cooked
If the Balsam Pear did not exist a pharmaceutical company would invent
it. In fact, there have been some ten studies published this
year about it, the latest as of this writing in February 2008 in the
Food Biochemistry about its potential in diabetes
very common, bitter vegetable in Asian cuisine, the Balsam
charantia, is a natural drug store for diabetics
others. It’s not a pear at all but a fruiting gourd and vine that
smells like an old, well-used gym shoe. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Young, green fruit are edible cooked
warty gourd is edible when green (and cooked) but turns toxic/medicinal
when orange ripe. It then splits characteristically into three parts,
revealing red arils (fleshy seed covers). The ripe seeds
the arils and orange flesh of the gourd are toxic and can make one
violently lose fluids from both ends, and induce abortions. The red
arils around the seeds, however, are edible. And note this: The arils
are 96% lycopene, which gives them their color. Just remember to spit
out the seed from each aril.
Fruit is toxic when yellow or orange
charantia is found Connecticut south to Florida, west to
Puerto Rico and the Hawaiian Islands. Incidentally, the bitter melon
has twice the potassium of bananas and is also rich in vitamin A and C.
Latin genus name, Momordica,
(mo-MOR-dee-ka) means “to bite,”
refers to the jagged edges of the leaves, which appear as if they have
been bitten. Charantia
(char-AN-tee-ah) the species’ name, comes from
Greek meaning beautiful flower. It’s native to tropical
of the world though no one knows where it came from originally, best
guess Old World Tropics. Gray’s four-inch thick Manual of Botany,
started in 1850 and revised in 1950, makes no mention of M. charantia
in the United States but it is currently a serious crop weed in Florida
and to 21 other crops around the world, bananas to soybeans. It’s a
late comer to Florida or Gray was in the dark about it. In the Amazon,
and as far away as India, it is used very much by local populations for
food and medicine. Apparently a dynamic chemical
the M. charantia
is being tested for treatment against cancer —
leukemia in particular — AIDS, as an analgesic, and to
insulin resistance. It is often called the vegetable insulin. It does
not increase insulin secretion but “speeds up carbohydrate use of the
cells by affecting membrane lipids.” Seems like the smelly gym shoe
hanging on the fence has a great future. But, it is not for everyone:
Don’t eat the vegetable if you’re hypoglycemic or pregnant. In
diabetics it can lower blood sugar too effectively. It also reduces
fertility in men and women. And, it contains vicine: That can
cause favism in people who have a variant glucose-6-phosphate
dehydrogenase. (I presume if you don’t know what that is you don’t have
it. Favism is a severe reaction to fava beans and or their pollen.
Occurs most often in men of Mediterranean background.)
Red coating on the seeds is edible raw, but not the seeds
versions of the M.
charantia, also called Bitter Gourd or Wild Balsam
Apple, are found in most Asian markets, and they, too, smell like an
old gym shoe. The odor, thankfully, almost all goes away when cooked
and the bitterness moderates, but does not go away completely. If you
are not yet brave enough to pick your own, you can buy some or grow it
yourself. There are many varieties and numerous recipes are on the
Internet. The M.
charantia is indeed bitter. Some cut up the vegetable
and soak it in water, or salted water and or blanch it to
Bitter Gourd leaf and flower
I have never seen an Asian family picking M. charantia off
here in Florida, I have seen many Hispanic families doing so.
Julia Morton, a plant professor in south Florida, says
the green fruit, the young leaves when cooked and drained are also
edible and nutritious, with iron, phosphorous, calcium and vitamin C. I
have never managed to get past the locker room bouquet to toss ‘em in a
pot. The ripe fruit pulp has been used as a soap substitute, which
should give you some idea of the flavor. In India and Africa the cooked
leaves are canned like spinach. The fragrant flowers can be used as
seasoning when cooking.
Incidentally, if you have a glut of
green Bitter Gourds, you can slice them, partially boil them with
salted water, then dry them, sun or otherwise. They will last for
several months. You can then fry them and use as you like. Also,
drinking the fresh bitter juice is recommended by some naturopaths.
That ain’t going to be easy, it’s really bitter…. much easier to tell
someone to do it than do it yourself. Also there is one report that
drinking vine juice killed a child.
Remember: No part of the
charantia is ever to be eaten raw, except for the red
(and remember to spit the seeds out.) No part, other than the
arils, is ever to be eaten when ripe, which is when it is turning from
green to yellow to orange. Do not eat the yellow or orange fruit raw or
cooked. It is toxic/medicinal. Also, the green fruit is suspected in
the poisoning of dogs and pigs.
which has longer spines on the fruit and can ripen to red, grows only
in St. Lucie County in Florida and only a smattering of places in the
southern U.S. M.
balsamina fruit can be pickled or after
used as a cooked vegetable. Young shoots and tendrils are boiled as a
green. The seeds are eaten in cooked young fruit. Momordica
cochinchinensis produces a huge round fruit that is red
Young fruit boiled, not as bitter as M. charantia. Momordica dioica,
small and roundish, is more esteemed than the rest. It is not
bitter but sweet. Fruits, shoots, leaves and roots are boiled for food.
There are also at least seven commercial cultivars of the Momordica
Green Deane’s Itemized Plant Profile
charantia: A slender, climbing annual vine to 18 feet with
long-stalked leaves and yellow flowers where the leaf meets the stem.
Young fruit emerald green turning to orange when ripe. At maturity,
fruit splits into three irregular parts that curl backwards showing
many reddish-brown or white seeds encased in scarlet arils.
Time of Year:
Fruit, summer and fall in warm climates, fall in northern
Love to climb, found in hammocks, disturbed sites, turf and ornamental
landscapes, and citrus groves . It seems to be the most common vine on
chain link fences in Florida.
Method of Preparation: None of it
ripe except the arils. Boiled green fruit (including seeds) leaves and
shoots, boiled twice. Or, cut open and remove seeds and fiber and
parboil. Ripe parts toxic are too bitter to eat.
can swallow hole two ripe seed and not have much distress.) Young
leaves and shoots are boiled and eaten as a potherb. Flowers used as
Herbalists say the charantia has long been used to treat diabetes and a
host of other ailments from arthritis to jaundice.
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