Species is cultivated worldwide

  • Monday, August 20, 2012

This particular species has ridged fruits, which can sometimes get to be a foot long.

A cucumber from a garden of bad dreams? Not at all: but it is a marvelous member of the melon family (or "Cucurbitaceae"). It's edible, it's reputed to have a number of medicinal properties, and it's easy to grow in your garden, where it will make quite a display.
This is one of about 40 or so closely related species, all-native to tropical Africa. They are all pretty much viny, and they like to climb. As with all the members of the melon family, there are both male and female flowers on a single plant, and of course it is only the female flowers which yield fruits. This particular species has ridged fruits, which can sometimes get to be a foot long. The fruits start out green, the ridges equipped with plenty of soft bumps. When young, these fruits are edible, but as they grow, they become extremely bitter. The fruit wall changes from green to a bright creamy orange, and ultimately, the fruit will split open and peel back, revealing fascinating seeds: each one is layered with a brilliant red, thick, soft, gooey covering, which is sweet. When the ripened fruit is fully opened, it makes quite a flamboyant display, attracting birds which eat up all the seeds, depositing them (ahem) elsewhere, and so moving the plants around. The seeds themselves (minus the red goo) have nicks around their margins, looking like they've been chewed or bitten. (In fact, the genus name for this plant comes from the Latin verb meaning "to bite." But don't eat the seeds. They are probably a bit poisonous.) This species is now widely cultivated around the world, and is sometimes seen as a vegetable in specialty markets.
This illustration represents something of a mystery. It depicts one of 32 watercolors painted between 1765 and 1775, now within the Rare Books and Special Collections in the Thomas Cooper Library here at USC. The paintings, featuring plant life, insects, and fishes, were all donated to USC in 1991 by Ethelind Pope Brown, who acquired them in 1952. Who painted them? We aren't certain, but they may represent the work of John Laurens (1754-1782), son of Henry Laurens (one of SC's "founding fathers"). John, a fascinating historical figure in his own right, was a Revolutionary War veteran and war-time confidante of George Washington…and he had developed a keen interest in drawing and natural history as a youth. The originals themselves represent some of the earliest known garden and natural history collections for South Carolina. (Mark Catesby's art is earlier, from the 1730's, and is maintained in Windsor Castle in England.) The paintings themselves are extremely delicate, but have been made available to the public on the internet at  http://library.sc.edu/digital/collections/popebrown.html. For additional information on this collection, contact USC's Thomas Cooper Library at 803-777-0296.

Answer: "Bitter melon," Momordica charantia]

John Nelson is the curator of the Herbarium in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196.


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