Bitter melon is a bitter-tasting gourd whose interior pulp varies from pale green to white. Growing bitter melon will produce a vine whose fruit is an orange-yellow when mature, and green when immature. One of the best tips for growing bitter melon is to soak the seeds before planting because the seeds are covered by a hard coating, and soaking will ease germination. The seeds can be planted in a container or straight into the ground when attempting to grow bitter melon, but ground planting requires a gardener to wait until the ground is warm. The seeds can be planted a little earlier, but to shield them from nighttime coolness, they should have a protective covering. Growing bitter melon is easiest when the melon can climb on a trellis as it reaches for its full height of 6 feet (1.82 meters), and its fruit will grow straighter if given enough room.
Despite its bitter taste and need for warm conditions, many farmers and gardeners do well when growing bitter melon around the world, and it is popular as a medicine and a food in Asia, India, Latin America and East Africa. The gourd, which is related to cucumbers, watermelons and squash, contains high contents of vitamins C and A, phosphorous, iron, potassium and beta-carotene. The fruit also is a good source of fiber and some B vitamins.
Several compounds found in the gourd are believed to help diabetics because they lead to lower levels of blood sugar. It is believed the relationship between bitter melon and diabetes acts on the principle that the melon’s special compounds help to regulate insulin production, leading to better regulation of blood sugar levels. Doctors in some parts of the world, such as the Philippines and India, prescribe it for their diabetic patients.
Native healers around the world make use of this fruit for the treatment of a large variety of ailments. In Haiti, for example, it is used as both an insecticide and to stimulate the appetite, as well as to treat constipation, fever, anemia and skin problems. The Chinese use it to treat impotency, kidney problems, breast cancer and halitosis. Brazilians use it for hemorrhoids, flu, hives, hepatitis, colic, burns, malaria, scabies, leprosy and worms.
The side effects of bitter melon include stomach upset and the possible development of hemolytic anemia. Side effects also can include the inducement of vaginal bleeding, and for this reason it should be avoided by women who may be pregnant. Scientists are unsure how this fruit affects breastfeeding and so they advise breastfeeding mothers to avoid the fruit. Children, too, should refrain from eating the fruit because there have been instances of hypoglycemic coma.