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A funny thing happened on the way to the drug store…ah, this is so me. We were on vacation in the Florida Keys, and I took a short walk across the street to pick up a few things at the drug store. I stopped to admire a pretty bush with silvery leaves, and something bright caught my eye. A neon orange, spikey fruit called the balsam apple dangling from a vine. I had to know more.
When I came back from my walk, I searched the web for more info. Then, I went back to the bush and collected samples of the vine, fruits and seeds. You don’t think the drugstore would mind that I borrowed their weeds, do you? I had so many questions. What are the uses? Is it native to the US? How did it get there? Is it historic?
The scientific name is Momordica balsamina. That is only important if you feel compelled to buy seeds. It’s not an apple, and you don’t make balsamic vinegar from it. If you grew up in Asia or Africa, you might know this herb or one of its close cousins, like the bitter melon. It is used as a herb or a vegetable in some Asian and African nations, but balsam apple is pretty much unknown in the US.
It is historic though, even in the US. Thomas Jefferson grew balsam apples at his experimental garden at Monticello. I’ve read a few books about that garden. In addition to eating the leaves and unripened pods, our ancestors used balsam apple to treat wounds. Sadly, most of the knowledge about how to use it to treat wounds has been lost to time. The former president was a big fan of flowering vines, but the plant is not native to the US. It is believed to have originated in Africa.
Balsam apples are so ugly, they’re beautiful. The vine is long and straggly. The balsam apples themselves begin life as adorable little yellow flowers, which become lumpy, warty green fruits. If left to ripen, the green fruits turn neon orange and squishy. When they open, there are three rows of sticky, wax-covered red seeds inside. You can see some of the sticky wax on my fingers in this photo.
How to use a balsam apple
Young, green fruits and leaves can been eaten raw, stewed or fried. While I wouldn’t recommend eating random vines you find growing on the side of parking lots, I did taste the leaves. They’re bitter. Really bitter. Even though I enjoy strong flavors, I am not so sure about eating any quantity of balsam apple raw. And there are some warnings…
Do not ever eat the seeds or the ripe, orange fruit. It is poisonous and can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Avoid ingesting balsam apple if you are pregnant, for fear of causing miscarriage. That really freaks me out. I would avoid balsam apples and bitter melons entirely if I were pregnant or planning to be pregnant.
Ashley at My Heart Beets wrote a funny post and recipe for the cousin of the balsam apple (even though she refers to bitter melon as balsam apple, it isn’t, but they’re close). She compares the flavor of bitter melon to a potent beer.
However, this recipe for Cassava root and balsam apple sounds pretty intriguing. Here, the leaves are used as an herb to flavor the dish than as the bitter, pungent star of the meal.
Should I sell balsam apple at my farm stand?
Referring back to the whole concept of farmstand culture, if you have a farm stand that serves people from Africa or Asia, especially India, China, Mozambique, Nepal, or Vietnam, you might consider growing balsam apple or bitter melon. Start asking your neighbors if they would be interested in this mostly forgotten herb.
When they’re in stock, you can snag a pack of seeds here. Once you grow the balsam apple vine, you should be able to harvest plenty of seeds for future plantings and never need to buy seeds again.
Considering its strongly bitter flavor, balsam apple would be a tough sell to people who did not grow up with the herb, like most Americans. It will attract a ton of attention, but you’ll have to do a ton of educating. You could try one of my recommendations to increase your farm stand income and pair a small pint of green balsam apples with a recipe. Your patrons will need more information and ideas.
Remember, once ripe, the orange balsam apples are dangerous and should never be sold. If you don’t harvest them when they are very young and green, do not sell the fruit to your farm stand patrons. I would include a warning about the risk of miscarriage, which is likely a big buzz kill for your farm stand customers.
The plant is pretty prolific. You should get a lot of unripe, green balsam apples from each vine, and, but be careful, as the residents of South Florida have discovered, the plant can become a bit invasive. It’s not hard to weed out; it’s a pretty simple vine. I’d say, oh I don’t know, chives are a much bigger problem if they go to seed.
Future of balsam apples
Once a featured conversation-starter in a president’s garden, balsam apples now grow in complete anonymity in the bushes along the drugstore parking lot. It is a rare and fascinating herb. One that deserves more study. What properties made it so attractive to our ancestors to use to treat wounds? The true benefits and risks of balsam apple vines remain mostly a mystery.
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54 thoughts on “Forgotten herb: balsam apple”
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I grew bitter gourd/melon this year and have several times before in years past. Even with proper preparation they are a little too bitter for my taste. This year I made Indian style pickle with them. The strong spice flavors helps mask the bitterness.
Greg – you’re awesome! That’s fantastic experience and a great suggestion. What zone are you in? I’m wondering how well balsam apple grows in different zones.
I’m in zone 7b. The possible low temperatures are in the 5ºF to 10ºF range. The lowest I’ve seen since living here the last 33 years was 8ºF this last winter. The last frost in spring is typically around Easter and the first killing frost is in the first week in November. Plenty of growing time for bitter gourd.
Plenty! And was the plant pretty productive for you?
It’s an EXOTIC INVASIVE weed. Kill it!
So they’re like eating a puffer fish, only eat here, here, here and here! Lol! Sorry I couldn’t resist!
Ha! I had the same thought. But then again, there’s a lot of stuff in our homes and yards that could be dangerous – cleaning products, alcohol, castor oil, holly, magnolia, poinsettia. That’s just a quick list off the toi of my head.
Magnolia? That’s new! Never thought of them being harmful.
I think it’s just the seed pods. :0) more of an upset stomach than skulls and bones.
How interesting! I have never in my life seen or heard of these before! I think they would be good to grow just so that we don’t lose them to the more popular herbs and plants offered. Great post.
That’s a great point. Just to preserve the memory and knowledge of the balsam apple.
I grew up in the Caribbean and remember this plant and fruit.
So cool. It’s very memorable. Did you ever taste it? I imagine kids think it’s terrible.
Well my story about it is very interesting and memorable. My aunt just reminded me last evening when I shared this story with her that I was always the “good child”. I took all the medicine given to me by my eldets😂. She was not very find of the medicinal foods we were given to eat and would oftentimes put her portion on my plate. I would eat it without question. I loved my granny’s cooking. We call this Carili or as you say bitter melon or bitter gourd. My granny’s food was par excellent
Wow, you really were a good child and a good listener!
I think it’s more conditioning ? Granny started early so now I’m totally vegan. I’ve lost 60 plus lbs and over 10 years maintained the loss so it’s more a lifestyle of good choices
That’s wonderful. Great to maintain lifestyle changes like that and over a decade, impressive!
Listen I try. Sometimes it’s harder than other times according to people places and things. I’m still human. I get the munchies
Absolutely. Totally normal.
I used to eat them ripe as a child, but only the red seed, they are sweet!
They sound too dangerous to me to buy sell or use.
Could be. In some countries, they’re common. In others, scary. Either way, I figured it was better to have more awareness about than less.
Think you are right.
Great to meet you!
Many thanks for stopping by my Travel and Photography blog.
This looked and sounded very much like a vegetable we use in India, the bitter gourd. On looking it up, I find it is a close relative, monordica charantia. Best eaten with the hell fried out of it!
That’s right! These fruits/herbs have many relatives. More than I would have thought.
That’s amazing.. Never knew about this balsam apple thanks for sharing..
Thanks! Me neither. But I do enjoy a good tell-me-something-I-don’t-know post!
That’s great.. sharing is knowledge.. even I do the same thing in my health tips..
Keep giving us knowledge..
You’re right! Share your tips!
That’s great sharing is knowledge..
keep sharing us the knowledge through ur posts
Thanks for visiting and the follow. I learned something new today! Begonia
That’s pretty cool! I’d want to know what those were if I saw them too. I’m always intrigued by new fruits or herbs 🙂
I am Indian so I am familiar with the cousin of Balsam Apple. In Punjab we call it Kerala. I have 2 recipes that my grandmother and mother used to make. One is with small tender ones that are stuffed and pan roasted. They are de-seeded and salted first to remove the bitterness. The other is with the skins of either small or large ones. Again, the skins are salted to remove the bitterness. They are then washed, dried and cooked with a spicy onion mixture. I love them. I can usually buy them in the Indian market when they are in season. I will make them and post the recipe when I get them next.
The salting is genius! Thanks so much for sharing your grandma’s tip!
I’ve heard of bitter melon (and cooked a good stir fry with it), but not the balsam apple. So fascinating! I know bitter melon is packed with vitamin A, C and B-6. From what I can find, balsam apple has some of the same things, perhaps less.
Thank you so much for sharing your research and experience with this interesting but almost forgotten herb.
Honestly I’m fascinated by the way Asian fruits and vegetables pack such a nutritional wallop, so to speak. It’s no wonder they’re more healthy compared to us (Americans). When I started reading nutrition labels, trying to find the best stuff to eat for my health I was constantly dismayed by just how small the content, especially of Vitamin A in some of the veggies that I cook and enjoy most. I almost felt like if I wanted to seriously even get close to the recommendations I’d have to eat spinach everyday. Don’t get me wrong, I love spinach, but I don’t intend to eat it everyday.
Oh I really get it! Did you happen to catch my farmstand5 post about a Chinese farmers market? Mostly fruits and nuts. Awesome stuff. I guess even with the strides American organic grocers have made, we are still pretty beholden to the high-yield commercial crops. Sad, really. Our ancestors would think we were produce-poor. It’s my whole inspiration for creating this blog. To undo a little bit of that forgetfulness.
Found it! Lots of fruits I haven’t seen before!
I’m so glad! I felt the same way. What a shame we don’t have more variety in our fruits like that, but it’s a self-perpetuating cycle…don’t have them, don’t learn about them, don’t try them, don’t have them.
[…] Forgotten herb: balsam apple […]
A Jamaican friend of mine saw a pic of this on my Whatsapp page and enquired. I was looking for the scientific name when I got here.
Here, we call it ‘corella’.
I didn’t know it was poisonous…at all. We use to suck on the seed when we were kids. I just did it yesterday because I wanted to see if my perception of the flavor was the same. It’s sweet.
I won’t eat any more. Lol.
Thank you for this real-life comment! It’s so good to hear from you.
I think it’s pretty clear that the balsam apple is under-studied and under-appreciated.
Nice find. Its called Cerassee in Jamaica. We use the leaves to make a bitter tea. We suck the red parts and spit out seeds here. Its kinda sweet.
Thank you, Chad! That’s wonderful insight. How long has it been since you had a Cerassee?
My family makes a salve from balsam apples to treat cuts and other skin issues. Have for as long as I can remember.
I will share we you what or family has used Balsam Apple for the last 100 years medically. Tale ripened Apple remove and dry seeds for latter planting. Tale apple and put it in a mason Jar with a good brand of Whiskey. Cover and put it in an ice box. If you have a minor cut injury or bruise, remove a piece of the apple from the mason jar. You should find it to be mushy in texture. Use a fork to mash up the Apple. Apply to the wound and cover with a layer of gauze bandage overnight. Remove in the morning for relief to the wound or bruise.
Thank you for sharing! It’s wonderful to record this knowledge so it isn’t lost to time.
Hello there, I just wanted to add that I’m from Venezuela, and as a child these vines grew everywhere near my house, me and my sister we used to eat the pods when it was ripe, the red seeds only, they are really sweet. The poisonous part left me thinking that we never experienced any discomfort after eating them, we loved them!