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Seminole County Extension Services Manager
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Extension Services

balsam apple: ornamental, weed or vegetable

Al Ferrer
Seminole County Residential Horticulturist

The balsam apple, balsam pear and Chinese cucumber belong to the genus Momordica, a little known genus of the squash family. Momordica is a Latin word that means ?to bite? and refers to the look of the uneven seeds. They all do well under Florida conditions and can be grown as warm weather vegetables. They are very popular in oriental countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam and China. The balsam apple is found through Florida as a weed in hammocks, disturbed sites, turfs, ornamental landscapes, yards and citrus groves. It is a very aggressive weed-vine and will climb over fences, trees and plants. Birds usually distribute the seed of this plant in the wild.

The plant: As most cucurbits, the plant is an annual running vine. The leaves are alternate and deeply notched into five to seven lobes. The lobes of the blades are rounded to pointed and usually have teeth on the margins. The flowers are yellow and occur singly on stalks bearing a modified leaf near the middle. The fruit of the balsam apple is about 3 inches long, egg shaped, pointed, bumpy, ribbed and golden yellow to bright orange when ripe. At maturity, the fruit breaks, bursting open along the three valves. The orange pulp contains the seeds that are covered with a bright red sugary tissue that enclose the seeds. The seeds are elliptic, flat and about a half-inch long. The balsam pear, also called bitter melon, is 406 inches long, oblong, pointed with warty furrows extending lengthwise. When fully ripe, it splits into three sections. Both balsam apple and balsam pear immature fruits are boiled as a vegetable. The Chinese cucumber fruit looks like a cucumber, is 6-8 inches long, dark to yellowish green in color and has a very bumpy outside surface. The hollow center contains several watermelon-like seeds that are irregularly etched and covered with a scarlet pulp. The fleshy portion of the fruit is edible and is mainly cooked in soups.

Toxicity: The ripe fruit and seeds of balsam apple are toxic and can cause severe diarrhea and vomiting. They have also been used to induce abortion. The foliage and the outer coat and seeds produce diarrhea and vomiting if eaten. Recovery from poisoning can be lengthy. This plant contains alkaloids and other substances that make dangerous for human consumption.

Use: All parts of the plant are used in folk medicine. The rind is sometimes dried and used in medicinal preparations. The unripe fruits are boiled and eaten in the orient. Cooked leaves when drained of the bitter liquid are said to be edible. Aril covering the seeds is edible. Because of their vining habit of growth they are sometimes used as ornamental vines to cover fences, porches and arbors.

Culture: Balsam apple can be grown in home gardens using the same practices used to produce cucumbers. Provide enough space or a trellis for the vines, as they can grow more than 10 feet long. They should be planted in full sun, in loose, rich and well-drained soil. Water the plant regularly during the summer to avoid wilting of the vines and flowers. As with other cucurbits, plant the seeds directly in beds when the danger of frost is over, treat them as annuals. Seeds should be planted about twice their diameter deep. After seeds have germinated, start feeding the seedlings weekly with a water-soluble fertilizer at half-strength; use a compete fertilizer such as a 10-10-10. After the plants are about a month old, you can use a granular fertilizer, about ? cup per hill, to keep the plants growing vigorously.

Pests and diseases: Little is known of the pest and diseases that can affect balsam apple. It must be assumed that the same insects and diseases that affect other cucurbits will also affect this plant. Various leaf-spot diseases, mosaic virus, downy mildew and powdery mildew have been reported on this crop. Nematodes are probably one of the problems that can affect balsam apple. Do not use any pesticide until insects or diseases appear. Balsam apple growing wild in nature does not seem to be affected by either insect or diseases.

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