Bitter gourd has an important place in traditional medicine and cuisine, says Thilaka Baskaran
Though harsh in taste, bitter gourd has an important place in traditional cuisine and medicine. Known as bitter melon in many countries, it belongs to the family of cucurbitaceae, like squash and cucumber.
Bitter gourds can be divided into three basic groups — the small triangular one, the dark green long one and the light green fleshy one that is less bitter. There are about 300 varieties found around the world.
A seasonal plant that thrives in hot, humid climate, bitter gourd grows best in fertile, well-drained soil, which is enriched with organic matter such as compost. Direct seeding is the common practice for this gourd. Sow two or three seeds per hole at a depth of 2 cm and space holes 40 to 60 cm apart. Seedlings will emerge in six to seven days. When they have four leaves, thin out to one healthy plant.
If you plan to grow them in pots, a 40-cm pot can take care of two vines. It grows fast and vines need support two weeks after planting. When the plants start putting out lateral branches, leave two or three and remove the rest. Regular watering with plenty of water is essential for its growth.
Flowers start appearing in 45 to 50 days.
The plant is monoecious and have male and female flowers. Male flowers are more in number and female flowers have a fat section between the flower and the vine stem.
Pollination is done by insects. If there are no insects around, the female flowers wither.
If that happens, you can hand pollinate by picking a male flower and tapping the pollen into the centre of the female flowers. This should be done in the mornings when the flowers are open. When the plant begins to bear fruit, apply top dressing every two weeks regularly.
Mature gourds will be ready to be picked within three months. A well-cared for vine will bear fruits for the next six months.
For centuries, bitter gourd has been used as a remedy for a range of health conditions, especially Type 2 diabetes.
Scientists at the World Vegetable Centre, Taiwan, have been experimenting with 280 varieties of bitter gourd to crossbreed a super version with maximum anti-diabetic effect. Many studies suggest that bitter gourd has a role in glycemic control of diabetes.
In India this vegetable is cooked in many ways and each region has its own variation.