UF/IFAS Okeechobee County Extension Service
458 Highway 98 North
Okeechobee, FL 34972-2578
Article - for release the week of
Culbert - Extension Horticulture Agent, retired
BALSAM APPLE: WEED OR VEGETABLE?
“What is this weedy vine - and how can I get rid of it?” Warm weather and summer rains can jumpstart many viney weeds. A common vine found in home gardens, citrus groves, Florida Yards and along the roadside is the Balsam Apple. It is recognized as a nuisance and could be poisonous.
This plant is also known as Wild cucumber because of its fruit. Native to tropical Africa and Southeast Asia, the Balsam Apple has escaped cultivation, and it now grows from Florida to Texas. It is considered by most local residents to be a problematic weed.
A section of Balsam Apple vine, showing leaves, curling tendrils, yellow flower and the orange "wild cucumber" fruit. Photo: Steve Futch, UF/IFAS
A 3-day old Balsam apple weed seedling. Photo: Steve Futch, UF/IFAS
Young plants show a difference in the leaf shape. Photo by UF/IFAS.
Vines can spread over the ground in the landscape, grove or garden. Photo by Anne Murray, UF/IFAS
African Cucumber (Momordica balsamina L.) is a related species that grows in Africa. Photo courtesy Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK.
The Latin name of the Balsam-apple (Momordica charantia) refers to the bitten appearance of the uneven seeds and the pointed fruit. There are many closely related plants that add to naming confusion. One of these is a native to east India is known as Balsam Pear, Bitter Cucumber, or Bitter Melon. This plant is an article of food in the Orient, but is mainly grown as a curiosity in the U.S. It is popularly grown as a climbing annual with large ornamental fruit. Another species (M. balsamina) has fruit shaped like a bull's heart, with bright red fruit.
Balsam Apple rapidly grows from seed and produces high-climbing vines. The ridged stem has slightly fuzzy stems. Look for dark green leaves with deep lobes, less than three inches wide. The stems have string-like tendrils that wrap around what ever it can, and support the vine on fences or other garden plants.
It doesn’t take long for the vines to produce yellow blossoms. As with most squash relatives, they produce separate flowers with either male or female parts. Male flowers produce only pollen, while the female flowers produce stumpy, lumpy orange colored fruits that are tapered at both ends.
At maturity the fruit bursts open in thirds. The orange pulp contains seeds covered with a bright red skin. Seeds look much like that of cucumber seed and will measure about one quarter inch long. The "Apple" in Balsam Apple refers to the bright red pulp surrounding the seeds, which are seen when the mature orange rind splits and exposes the seeds. The ripe fruits and seeds are toxic.
Most local residents that discover Balsam apple vines invading their fences and crawling though the landscape want to know how to get rid of this invader. There are no magic herbicides that can be used to selectively kill this plant without damaging other landscape plants.
The key to managing this weed is to keep ahead of it. If you regularly observe your landscape, hand removal of small seedlings before they take over is the best course of action. If you see a seedling that sprouts from a left-behind Balsam Apple, you will then know what a young plant looks like, and train your eye to pick it out from landscape or garden plant beds while it is small.
For situations where Balsam Apple has got out of hand, the use of our old standby herbicide glyphosate can help to kill the vine. You may know this chemical as Roundup™, a non-selective, systemic weed killer that kills what ever it touches. Don’t spray it on wild cucumber vines that are covering desirable plants. Reading the label and following all label directions is not only a good idea when using this product, it is FEDERAL LAW!
The weed killer will kill the vine and the roots, but will not kill the seed that have already been produced. To prevent further episodes of this vine crawling around your Florida Yard, careful removal of all the fruit from dead vines before they split and drop their seed will be needed. And since it is unlikely that you will be able to get all the seed, follow-up management is needed. By carefully looking for new seedlings and promptly pulling them up before they grow flowers, the chances that Balsam Apple will be a problem are reduced.
Most consider Balsam Apple to be a weed, but cultivated relatives of this plant share its name. Some used it as an ornamental vine or savor its fruit as a vegetable. In the landscape, the larger fruited Bitter melon can be used as an ornamental plant. It has larger more deeply lobed leaves. With the small, yellow flowers it can look striking as it cascades over a retaining wall or large barrel. Our local balsam apple could be used in a similar fashion, but care should be given to prevent it from escaping and becoming a weed.
Cultivated Bitter Melons may have some edible qualities and have been reported to have some medicinal uses. Please consult with medical professionals before using them in this manner. This image provided and copyrighted by Raintree Nutrition, Inc. All rights reserved. http://www.rain-tree.com
Bitter Melon, a minor vegetable. Photo by Jim Stephens, UF/IFAS
If you would like to see some additional references on Balsam apple, please contact your County Master Gardeners or Local Extension office.
Trade names, where used, are given for the purpose of providing specific information. They do not constitute an endorsement or guarantee of products named, nor does it imply criticism of products not named. The Florida Cooperative Extension Service - Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer authorized to provide research, educational information, and other services to individuals and institutions that function without regard to race, color, sex, age, handicap, or national origin. Florida Cooperative Extension Service / IFAS / University of Florida. Nick Place, Dean. Last update: 03/31/2015 . Thttp://okeechobee.ifas.ufl.edu/News%20columns/Wild%20Cucumber.htm
Hall, David W. and Vandiver, Vernon V. Balsam-apple, Momordica charantia L. (in: Weeds in Florida, SP-37) Gainesville: UF/IFAS Cooperative Extension Service, April 2003. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/FW028
Ilic, Pedro. Bitter Melon Cost Analysis Work sheet. Fresno Co., California: Farm Advisor bulletin, 1990. http://www.island.wsu.edu/CROPS/BITTERME.htm
MDidea Creation . Bitter Melon Extract. 1/2007. http://www.mdidea.com/products/herbextract/bittermelon/data.html
Soto, A. et.al. Momordica charantia ( Algunas Malezas de Costa Rica y MesoAmerica.) On-line Weed identification resource, in Spanish. Universidad de Costa Rica, San José, Costa Rica, 2004. http://laflor.ifas.ufl.edu/Weeds%20of%20CR/cd/MALEZAS/Cucurbitaceas/cucurbitaceas%20integradorfam.html
Taylor, Leslie. Bitter Melon In: Herbal Secrets of the Rainforest, 2nd edition. Carson City, NV: Sage Press, Inc., © 2002. http://www.rain-tree.com/bittermelon-tech.pdfStarr, Forest & Kim. Momordica charantia Bitter melon (Thumbnail images). Honolulu: USGS, Sept. 2004. http://www.hear.org/starr/hiplants/images/thumbnails/html/momordica_charantia.htm